United States: Forget Space Travel, What About Zero Gravity?

Airlines and Aviation

News of the tragic crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo brings back memories of a Zero Gravity flight aboard a Boeing 737 – from total disorientation to total exhileration. Michael Taylor reminisces  …

If you’re fed up with flight delays that leave you in the departure lounge or – much worse – stuck in a stuffy cabin on the tarmac for hours on end, consider this.

The 800 daredevils and thrillseekers that have signed up to be among the world’s first civilian space travelers, who were supposed to be taken aloft next year, could see their flight plans delayed by 2 to 3 years following yesterday’s tragic crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo.

“You are not going to see any commercial space tourism flight next year or probably several years after that,” said Marco Caceres, a Senior Space Analyst and Director of Space Studies for the Teal Group.

“This certainly delays any Virgin Galactic commercial flight for at least 2 years or more.”

Tickets were initially priced at US$200,000, but that figure had already climbed to US$250,000 before yesterday’s mishap occurred.

With the delay, will ticket prices climb yet further into the stratosphere? Or will interest in space travel take a nose dive?

In case you’re wondering, here’s what you’d get for that quarter of a million US dollars: a 3 hour flight aboard a 2-pilot, 6 passenger craft, which would include a few moments of weightlessness.

Zero Gravity

I can top that! Several years ago, I was flown to the United States on a press trip sponsored by Breitling Watches.

Included was a visit to Washington, DC, where we visited the Smithonian National Air and Space Museum, and Reno, Nevada, where we attended the Reno Air Races.

I’m not sure what any of this had to do with Breitling Watches, except – if I remember correctly – the CEO was an aviation buff.

Little did I know when I agreed to go on this trip that I would get to experience something that most people would have to pay US$4,950 to experience: Zero Gravity  aboard a Boeing 727 aircraft used for training astronauts.

Champagne Breakfast

The day started with a lavish buffet breakfast that was very heavy on cream and other rich ingredients – stuff like souffles and eggs benedict. This was washed down with copious amounts of champagne.

We were then taken on a tour and served generous amounts of wine. We watched some of the air races and consumed yet more wine.

Then we were asked to go back inside. We were given dark blue flight suits to put on and briefed on the day’s activities.

“OMG!” I thought as I listened to what was in store for us.

“Had I known, I wouldn’t have consumed all of that wine!”

Had I known, I might not have agreed to go on the press trip …

Routine Take Off

We were taken by shuttle to the specially outfitted aircraft, which was parked at the end of the runway.

There were a few rows of seats at the rear. The rest of the cabin was empty. We were given the routine safety briefling you hear on airline flights.

Take off was pretty routine.

After we climbed to an altitude of 24,000 feet, we were asked to unbuckle our seat belts and make our ways to the front of the cabin, which was divided into 3 zones.

After we knelt down the pilot slowly began to pull up, increasing the angle of the aircraft to about 45 degrees until we reached 34,000 feet.

Wow!

Intense Pressure

The pressure was intense – so intense on my feet, in fact, that I did something stupid.

With great difficulty I rearranged my legs so that they were extended in front of me rather than folded under me. BIG MISTAKE!

Suddenly the plane performed its first parabola. For the next 20 to 30 seconds, we went into a dive, which created zero gravity.

For the first time in my life, there was nothing holding me down, and it was NOT a pleasant sensation.

I know it looks like fun when you see other people doing it on television, but it was actually a very disorienting experience.

It was, therefore, a big relief when the weightlessness ended and I awkwardly tumbled back to the floor of the cabin – and scrambled to get back into place.

Air Sickness

During the first pull-out, a couple of passengers were taken to the rear of the plane, where they sat down and threw up into those little white paper flight bags that airlines always provide.

I felt an intense empathy for them. I also felt a supreme sense of relief – and gratitude! Better them than me! So I wasn’t the only one that didn’t enjoy that first journey into weightlessness.

And I was determined NOT to join them at the back of the plane!

During the second ascent, I kept my legs folded firmly beneath me – I had learnt my lesson.

Our second parabola was a little less disorienting. When I started lifting off the floor, I tried to smile as though I was enjoying myself. 

I don’t think I fooled anyone.  Seeing the look on my face, someone reached out a helping hand and tried to steady me.

When the second parabola ended, several more passengers were taken to the rear of the craft, where they sat down and threw up.

Exhilarating Experience

The 3rd parabola was the charm. I had adjusted to the new experience. I knew what to expect.

My body was also starting to adjust to an experience that it had never experienced before.

My confidence had also been boosted. So far, I had felt no need to throw up. I was actually starting to enjoy myself!

There was more space now, and I tentatively started trying to do some simple acrobatic stunts – and when I say simple, I mean SIMPLE! You know, like lying flat in space …

During the 3rd pull-out, all of the remaining European passengers made their ways to the back of the plane. They sat down, buckled up, and threw up.

Only the passengers from Asia were left, and I was one of them.

I’m not sure why, but none of us got sick. We had the front of the cabin all to ourselves now.  There was now lots of space. There was this sense of camaraderie …

We did 12 more parabolas, spending a total of 8 weightless minutes in space. Each parabola was better than the last.

During each parabola, I became a bit more confident. Toward the end, I tried doing somersaults, which was an exhilerating sensation.

The last one was best! That’s when I threw caution to the wind, thrusting myself forward, and spinning about with total abandon.

I was totally disappointed when we were told to head to the back of the plane, sit down, and buckle up. Just when I was getting my bearings …

And happily, none of us threw up!

Back on Terra Firma

After we had safely returned to terra firma, I chatted with the young lady that was in charge of the passengers.

“We’ve never had that many people get sick before,” she intimated.

“I have no idea what went wrong!”

I told her about the rich champagne breakfast that we had enjoyed.

“OMG!” she said.

“That explains it! They were supposed to serve you something bland like tuna fish sandwiches! And definitely no champagne!”

We had been divided into 2 groups. After we disembarked, I asked – pleaded almost – if there would be room on the next flight.

“If somebody doesn’t want to go, I can take their place!” I implored.

“I mean, if someone has a weak stomach …”

But alas, there were no takers.

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