In January I got the opportunity to fly on Zero G Corp.’s G-Force One, a 727 that flies parabolic arcs to simulate microgravity and zero-gravity. I wrote about it for our corporate magazine, Frontiers, and public website.
But magazines come with word limits and several rounds of edits, both of which made it impossible for me to tell the story moment-by-moment. Here’s the story I would have told if I had unlimited page space and didn’t have to deal with silly publishing things like “style” and “proper story structure.” Bah, editing.
After I enter the Orlando, Florida, Westin’s ballroom, I find a spot at a table with three people: A middle-aged guy who looks strikingly familiar (hereby known as Mystery Celebrity), his daughter and their friend. They let me sit with them, but they don’t say much to me. More conversations are going on at the table next to us, where a high school group containing a number of students in NASA sweatshirts chatter excitedly. Everyone picks at pieces of a continental breakfast, perfectly aware that we’re about to go on what’s been affectionately called the “Vomit Comet.”
Even without the introductory safety video, we’re all aware of what’s about to happen. We’re going to board a 727 passenger plane converted to a freighter and then to something in between that carries both passengers and their psychological cargo — the dream of being weightless. The airplane will fulfill this dream by flying upward at enough of a speed and angle to incur 1.8 Gs, or 1.8 times the force of Earth’s gravity. Then it will “tip over” at the top of the parabola, flying downward at just the right speed and angle to make everyone in the cabin float weightlessly. We’re going to float weightlessly because we’ll technically be in free-fall until the airplane pulls back up.
Flash to my mom back in Chicago, clutching the pewter guardian angel she keeps clipped to her car’s visor as she rapid-fires Hail Marys.
After we nibble on continental breakfasts we hope never to meet again while on the “Vomit Comet,” they invite us to find our assigned tote bags at the front of the room. Each one has a t-shirt, pair of socks and flight suit, which I plan to keep with or without permission because of my desire to be astronaut-chic. A cosmopolitan cosmonaut, if you will.
After a 30-minute safety video and introduction to the crew — our coach, Paul; the photographer, Steve; the pilots; the CEO of the company; flight attendants — we’re on a bus headed to the Sanford International Airport, a base that reminds me of DuPage County Regional Airport back home in Chi-town suburbia.
Then the photos start.
After posing for enough photos to fill a Vanity Fair photo essay, we board the plane from the back and find our seats. Our group is small compared to the usual Zero G Corp. passenger load. We only take up about half of the seven rows of passenger seats sit in the back of the plane. From our spots we face an expanse of white-padded space between us and the cockpit wall. I now know what my padded cell will look like.
These are the internal jokes I make as I feel the plane move across the tarmac. Taxiing takes forever — doesn’t it always? — but the fact that the flight itself is the destination seems to elongate the process. If we could just take off before someone on this airplane changes their mind…
And then we do. Without windows there’s not much to look at except the fellow future gravity-defiers. Mystery Celebrity and company sit behind me. There’s a woman who won her ticket by writing an essay on what the future looks like. Across the aisle from me is a guy from Australia who travels for work 40 weeks out of the year and decided to take advantage of his stop in Orlando by taking air transportation to the next level. Behind him is a man from Austria who will eventually confess to me his love of aviation and show me a picture of the 727 control panel mounted on his Viennese flat’s living room wall. The high schoolers chatter but barely breach the roar in the cabin.
After the seat belt sign goes off 10 minutes after takeoff, the crew goes to work setting up cameras and trading us air sickness bags for our shoes. When they finish, they go back to their seats as we continue flying toward the airspace reserved for us somewhere over the water. I say a quick Hail Mary for Mom, who was never supposed to know I was doing this until I got back. Lesson learned: Don’t tell dad anything, even if you precede and follow it with “Don’t tell Mom I’m doing this.”
Then they call us to the main floor. Coach Paul asks if everyone has their air sickness bag. I realize mine is safely tucked in my seat pocket, rather than my suit pocket. When the crew shouts “on the pull,” which means we’re about to fly on the parabola’s upward path, I decide there’s nothing I can do. Other than vomit on this comet, of course.
“On the pull” is an experience all in itself. It’s possible to lift arms, legs, necks off the wresting mat padding, but it’s not easy. People with back problems would probably find it a liberating experience.
We tip over, and there’s an audible “Whoaaaa” as gravity slackens its grip. The first parabola, they explained, is Martian gravity (about 1/3 of Earth’s pull). Imagine jumping in a moon bounce, minus exertion. Only 23 seconds, and we’re back on the pull, prepping to go into two more prep-parabolas meant to get us acclimated to the weightlessness sensation. These are lunar gravity (1/6 of Earth), which sends us crashing into each other as we try to stand still.
Back on the pull, and we know the next ten parabolas are what we came for: Full weightlessness. This “pull” feels longer than the others, but that’s because the anticipation makes it feel like forever until gravity lets go entirely.
When I lift off, my body tells me to catch my balance. But I can’t — I wave my arms, kick my legs, reach for the wall, and it doesn’t do anything. The safety briefing told us “no swimming,” even though the coaches know it’s a natural reaction to try to push through thin air like it was water, but there’s nothing to push against except the Australian road warrior laughing maniacally as he spins upside down. Or am I the one upside down? When everything’s covered in white padding, it’s easy to lose a sense of the where the floor is versus the ceiling.
There must be some science that shows endorphins travel through the body quicker when they’re not battling gravity, because everyone’s brain is being flooded with natural happiness. It’s like being surrounded by people who have had just enough alcohol to be sloppy but fun. I bump into the Nissan contest winner, and she laughs as if we’ve been friends forever, even though we didn’t say much over our hotel-catered honeydew and miniature strudels. If only everyone in Chicago rush hour approached the crowded sidewalks with the same goodwill. My walking commute might be more enjoyable.
During the parabolas, Steve continues taking photos. Annie Leibovitz could learn a few things from him, as I’m pretty sure he’s one of the few photographers (apart from the Apollo 13 cinema crew) able to take fantastic photos as both he and his subject fight against complete freedom.
There’s a misconception about weightlessness bred by seeing how easily astronauts float through their tubes. Being weightless in an aircraft does not mean floating in midair. Instead, passengers go from being sucked into the floor by super-gravity to sucked up to the ceiling by zero-gravity. We’re human balloons, which comes as a shock during the first parabola. Paul even laughs at us once we come down: “You’re all like animals up on the ceiling!”
The second parabola is where we get to put our newfound knowledge to the test by lightly pushing away and doing flips, walking on our hands and crawling Exorcist-style up the walls and across the ceiling. After a few rounds the coaches bring out the toys, like candies that we can catch in our mouths (I abstain for fear of choking) and hula hoops we can try to float through like trained seals.
And Steve keeps taking photos. Sometimes he shouts my name so I can somehow figure out a way to continue doing whatever cool thing I’m doing, make eye contact with the lens and smile — all gently enough so you don’t float away and quickly enough so Steve doesn’t float away. It’s a good thing astronaut Scott Kelly didn’t have paparazzi up to the International Space Station, as he would never get any work done.
That’s another joke I make to myself before our final turn being weightless. Nausea creeps in as Paul gets out a bottle of water so we can catch globules in our mouths, mostly because we’re standing as the plane loops around to gain more space for the next parabola. The queasiness passes when I get down on my stomach to prep for “on the pull.”
After 40 minutes of experiencing micro- and zero-gravity over 15 parabolas, we’re back in our seats. The Mystery Celebrity behind me asks how I’m doing as his daughter quietly vomits into an empty Doritos bag. When I remark that it’s impossible not to smile and laugh, he laughs and pats me on the shoulder — though whether it’s because we’re still both experiencing the endorphin high or because I was really that charming is still up in the air.
Not all of us are doing as well, however. As I type out my thoughts on my phone (many of which ended up verbatim in this blog post, by the way), I have to take breaks to let nausea pass. The strudel, melon and green tea from the morning stay down as I alter writing my thoughts, singing David Bowie’s “Starman” in my head, and debating whether to ask Mystery Celebrity if he’s *Nsync’s Joey Fatone now or when we got back to the hotel.
* Spoiler alert: He was. I didn’t ask, as a fellow millennial on the flight answered my question for me when she asked him for a photo as soon as we got off the bus at the hotel. When he was done with the photo opp, I walked with him back into the lobby and thanked him for his music. He responded “Thanks for contributing to her college fund,” pointing to his daughter and giving me a sweet little side-hug before we get back to the ballroom for lunch.
As we come in for landing, I’m still smiling. The nausea has passed, and there’s nothing left except a desire to do it all again. I type a few final thoughts into my iPhone, which I want use as the conclusion to this blog post. They’ve been scrubbed of damn-you-autocorrect errors, but they’re exactly what my thumbs drilled out as I waited to return to terra firma:
“There must be some innate instinct in humans where breaking free from gravity — a prison that not even a crooked politician, over-privileged rich guy or Buddhist monk can escape — triggers a psychological and physical response that should forever be known as the ‘Woo!’ Factor.”