In September, Charles Platt wrote a piece for Boing Boing about his visit to Tokyo's Akihabara district. This month, he submitted this astounding report about taking a zero-gravity flight.
by Charles Platt
I've always resented the force of attraction that traps me here on Planet Earth. It makes me feel like a bug stuck to a piece of duct tape. Ever since my teenage years, when I used to read a lot of science fiction and took it much too seriously, I've dreamed of somehow reaching escape velocity. I am, you might say, anti-gravity.
This afternoon, I will have a modest opportunity to do something about it. I am sitting in a conference room at a Marriott Residence Inn with 34 other people who share my desire to defy terrestrial pull. Together we are watching an orientation video screened by Zero Gravity Corporation, after which we will ride a bus to San Jose International Airport, where a modified Boeing 727-200 is waiting for us. In a suitably empty block of airspace above the Pacific, the airplane will start soaring and diving—much like a dolphin leaping from the ocean below—to create the transient sensation of weightlessness. Fifteen parabolic arcs will allow us a total of little more than five minutes in free fall, but for those of us desiring gravitational liberation, it's the only affordable option.
Of course, “affordable” is a relative term. When I booked earlier in the year, I paid $4,000, plus tax. Many of those sitting around me paid the current price of $5,000. What sort of wacko would want to spend all that money just to float upside-down for a few minutes?
Well, next to me is a couple who fit the profile that one might expect here, in San Jose, close to Silicon Valley. They met when she used to work for Netscape, back in the day when Marc Andreessen could still speak seriously about trouncing Microsoft in the browser wars, and people could still believe him. Her husband is now in a new startup, which he can't talk about yet.
Sitting behind me is rather a different San Jose local resident: A lady who has come here to celebrate her 90th birthday. She has spent much of her life airborne, after obtaining her first pilot license in 1948, when one of her early jobs was to fly a single-engined plane dragging advertising banners above California beaches.
Others in the room are mostly male, in their 20s or 30s. During the hotel buffet breakfast of fruit and muffins I spoke to a few who said they were engineers, and several who have pilot licenses.
Why do we want to do this? The simplest answer is, because we can.
Motion Sickness Denial
After the orientation video, a Zero Gravity representative invites questions. I raise my hand. “Where are the pills?” I ask. I am referring to the motion-sickness pills recommended in Zero-G documents, which advised me to bring a doctor's prescription, authorizing Zero-G to pick up the medication from its “local pharmacy.”
The representative stares at me blankly. He knows nothing about pills, and when I look more closely at the form that I filled out, I realize I have made an unfortunate error. I was supposed to fax my prescription five days previously. There is no way to obtain medications now.
This may be a problem. According to a space-enthusiast friend of mine, when astronaut John Glenn did his zero-gravity training, he vomited copiously, despite years of experience as a fighter pilot. If it could happen to him, presumably it can happen to me, especially since I am currently taking clindamycin for a gum infection, and the antibiotic is making me feel nauseated even before I'm airborne.
“Here, have one of these,” says the elderly lady sitting behind me. She pops a pill out of a blister pack. But I can't help noticing, she hasn't bothered to take any herself—and suddenly my reflexive tendency toward rebellion kicks in, as it often does when someone suggests something that seems extremely sensible. I'm too proud to take a pill. Forget about John Glenn. I will refuse to succumb to motion sickness, and that's that.
Matters of a Personal Nature
I become slightly more worried when our team leader advises us strongly to use the bathroom before we leave the hotel. Apparently there's no toilet on the airplane, just “a plastic bag for emergencies.”
This raises some issues of a more personal nature. First, a slight enlargement of the prostate, typical for someone of my age, sometimes creates what the medical profession describes as a “feeling of urgency.” I suppose the plastic bag can suffice for that, but a second concern is more serious. Clindamycin has had its characteristic loosening effect on my lower gastrointestinal tract, prompting me to make urgent and unpredictable visits to the bathroom during the past two or three days.
So, here I am, already feeling slightly queasy, and liable to suffer the pharmaceutical version of Montezuma's Revenge, as I get ready to enjoy a ride which may make me vomit and will eliminate any easy option to void my bowels. In fact I would have postponed my reservation today if Zero Gravity Corporation had allowed it—but, they don't. Once you click the “pay” button on their web page, effortlessly transferring thousands of dollars from your credit card to their bank account, you have said goodbye to that money on a permanent basis, regardless of circumstances. You will fly on the date you chose, or you won't fly at all. No refunds, no cancellations, no schedule changes. Your only option is to substitute someone else in your place. I understand why, of course: This is a marginal venture. They have to be certain of filling all 35 seats on the plane.
Since there's nothing I can do at this point, I tell myself that any unexpected events involving my stomach, my bladder, or my intestines will just make the whole thing more memorable. Misery is the stuff of comedy, if one can just live long enough to get over it.
The Humiliation Ritual
Some forms of misery, however, have minimal entertainment value at any time, as I am reminded when I leave the conference room and find myself confronted with the ritual known as a “TSA screening.” Yes, two employees from the Transportation Security Administration have somehow installed themselves in the hallway of this nice hotel, like rodents invading the basement of a mansion, and they are ready to demonstrate that even an elite group of zeronauts must be humbled by search and possible seizure, to keep the nation safe from terrorist acts. “If you are carrying a camera,” a short, humorless woman in a black TSA uniform yells at us, “you may not point it at us. If you do so, you will never see it again.”
That's precisely what she says, and even though we are all gravity rebels, none of us raises a murmur of dissent, because we know that this deeply offensive martinet has been given more authority than a police officer.
I know of only one relatively risk-free form of defiance in such a situation: Pretend to be deaf. A retired sherriff suggested this ploy to me long ago. “Cops really get pissed if someone can't hear them,” he told me. “It makes it hard for them to give orders.”
On the other hand, anything that prolongs the process will keep everyone else waiting. So, I surrender passively—which takes a while, because the TSA doesn't have x-ray equipment here. First I have to switch on each of my cameras (pointing them safely away from the TSA officials) to demonstrate that the picture on the LCD screen moves as I swing the lens from side to side. “Fake cameras just display one fixed picture,” the TSA employee explains to me, with an air of utter certainty, as if the TSA encounters fake cameras all the time. Then I stand with legs apart and arms extended while a metal-sensing wand is passed around me, and I have to loosen my belt to prove that no knife blade is hidden behind the buckle.
In D. B. Cooper's Footsteps
Finally we board the bus to take us to the airport, and there's a mood of great anticipation as we drive right onto the tarmac where the 727 is waiting, painted in Zero Gravity colors, with its rear stairs hinged down. All 727s were originally built with rear stairs for emergency egress, until legendary hijacker D. B. Cooper took advantage of this feature to make a parachute jump with a large sack of cash. After that, the rear exits on passenger 727s were rendered inoperable. This aircraft, however, was configured for freight, and I'm excited by the rare opportunity to tread the same path that D. B. Cooper trod. (He was never apprehended.)
Inside, the aircraft is a long, empty tube with no windows other than the small panes in emergency-exit doors over the wings. Six or seven rows of seats have been added at the rear, and colorful strips of carpet have been laid in a well-intentioned but not totally professional manner. Beyond this small seating area, the fuselage is lined with protective foam pads wrapped in cream-colored vinyl, so that we can bounce around without hurting ourselves. Actually the foam padding is incomplete; the company didn't have time to finish the job before today's flight. Strips of Velcro will attach future padding, and the Velcro has been covered, for the time being, with two-inch adhesive tape. I like this homespun look. It makes the adventure seem less corporate, more as if it has been created by a small group of individuals who may be as eccentric as I am.
The Flying Roller-Coaster
The FAA requires the usual series of instructions about seat belts and emergency landings, and then the 727 starts its engines, all three of which are located at the rear, generating enough noise to make conversation impossible. We taxi onto the runway, and the roll begins. Taking off in airplanes is an everyday routine, yet it never fails to delight me, because it is already a partial defiance of gravity. Once the plane reaches cruising altitude, though, I feel the same old pull of the Earth holding me against the cushions of my seat. Gravity, like a TSA employee, wants to keep me under its control. I can't wait for the opportunity to break free.
Our guides move up and down the aisle, gathering our shoes and putting them in plastic bags. We struggle into special-issue tube socks, each of which has the Zero-G logo on it. Then we move into the open area of the aircraft, where we scatter ourselves across its padded floor.
My stomach is relatively calm, my bowels are relatively stable, and I feel no special need to urinate. I'm in pretty good shape! But I do feel mildly apprehensive, as if I'm on the world's biggest roller coaster, with no idea of how steep the first drop is going to be.
Each parabolic up-cycle will be framed by down-cycles. Consequently, each period of reduced gravity will be preceded and followed by a period of enhanced gravity caused by centripetal acceleration (usually referred to as centrifugal force). We will experience a 1.8-G downward pull, and the least disorienting way to deal with this is by lying flat on our backs while staring at a fixed point on the ceiling. Obediently, we do so. I feel heavier, and heavier, while wind noise around the fuselage increases. When I try to raise my arm, if feels ridiculously heavy. When I try to raise my head, my neck muscles are barely strong enough. Then the burden lifts, and suddenly I realize that my apparent weight has diminished. I roll over and push myself away from the floor. This first cycle simulates Mars gravity, and I find myself feeling buoyant, imbued with unnatural strength, as if I just ate some No-Doz tablets chased with a couple glasses of scotch. I'm like a cartoon character with springs under my feet. Hey, this is great!
My fellow passengers are laughing and exclaiming as they bounce around, delighted by the feeling of power and freedom. We're as silly as a bunch of kids.
All too soon, our guide issues the warning: “Feet down!” We return to our prone state as the aircraft straightens its descent and then, once again, reaches the lower part of its cycle, pressing us against the floor.
The next up-cycle simulates lunar gravity. We're even lighter, with one-sixth normal weight. I feel like a feather. “Are you having fun?” I ask the 90-year-old lady, who is jumping up and down around beside me, wearing a happy grin.
“I love it!” she cries.
We go through one more lunar cycle, and then a prolonged period of normal gravity as the aircraft reaches the end of its designated air space and makes a slow U-turn to fly back the way it came. Now, finally, we will experience zero G.
Again I feel a little apprehensive. Maybe, just maybe, I should have taken that sensible motion-sickness pill. I will be so embarrassed if I puke all over my companions.
But then we enter the first zero-G cycle, and as I drift up into the air, I feel as if there's nothing unusual about it at all. My internal organs actually feel better, freed from the usual downward pull. I feel more normal in this state. I laugh with relief and excitement. I move up to the ceiling, spin myself around, and then dive down among the legs of the other zeronauts. I'm like a fish in an ocean of magical water that presents no resistance to movement. Without exaggeration, I can say that this is the most utterly free, liberating experience of my life.
Quickly, it ends—but then we enjoy another cycle, and another, each as effortless and natural as the first. “This is how I was meant to be,” I say, to no one in particular. Nausea? Why should I feel nausea? The sensations are the same regardless of my orientation. All directions are equal, here. When I put my head down near the floor and my feet in the air, my only concern is that I'm liable to fall in a clumsy heap when the cycle ends.
During one of the down swings, when I feel almost twice my normal weight, I decide to disobey instructions and experiment a little. I struggle half upright, turning my head to and fro. This certainly could induce nausea. When I rotate my head I feel as if my brain is lagging behind by half a second, and when I stop rotating my head my brain feels as if it is catching up. Not good!
The weightless cycles remain joyous, though. One of our guides scatters some droplets from a bottle of water, and sure enough they form almost perfect spheres. Another guide tosses M&Ms into the air, and people try to grab them in their mouths, like sea-lions gobbling fish thrown at the zoo. Weightlessness brings out the child in all of us.
When the last arc is complete, I'm very sad. I'd like to stay up here floating forever. I do notice that my sinuses aren't entirely happy about the experience, presumably because some fluid that is normally restrained by gravity has had the opportunity to shift around. I feel a bit congested, but it's a trivial inconvenience compared with the pure pleasure of floating.
A Chat with Peter Diamandis
A few weeks later, after I've decided to write about this for Boing Boing, I call the PR department of Zero Gravity Corporation and ask if I may have an opportunity to talk to Peter Diamandis, its cofounder.
Kindly, he spares some time for a telephone interview. He has a fascinating history, having received an undergraduate degree in molecular genetics and graduate degree in aerospace engineering from MIT, after which he got an MD at Harvard Medical School. He cofounded the X-Prize in 1995 with Space Shuttle astronaut Byron Lichtenberg, offering $10 million to the first private team to build and launch a space-plane capable of carrying three people 100 kilometers above the earth's surface, twice within two weeks. Burt Rutan's company, Scaled Composites, won that prize in 2004, which led to Richard Branson creating Virgin Galactic.
Diamandis also cofounded Space Adventures, which currently brokers tourist flights to the space station. He has been extremely influential. I think it's no exaggeration to say that without his efforts, space tourism probably would not exist today.
I begin by asking what motivates him.
“My mission on Earth is to get as many people off it as possible,” he tells me. “I've wanted to achieve this since the age of 9. I've built companies that are intended to be viable economic engines that will help to bring down the cost of getting into space. I think humanity's future lies in space, since we will need access to resources in space.”
I've heard that mantra many times during several decades. I can't help wondering if he has a more personal interest. Does he want to go into space himself?
“I want to go into orbit,” he says without hesitation, “and my long term goal is to be one of the first private citizens to set foot on the moon.”
Born in 1961, he's obviously in a race against time to achieve that goal—but he doesn't sound the kind of guy who gives up easily. “I believe that in the decades ahead the amount of wealth available to individuals, and the technology available to small groups of people, will be extraordinary,” he tells me. “Opening the space frontier and developing technology, to enable humanity to get off the earth, used to be affordable only to governments. Now a small team backed by a visionary billionaire can do it.”
Is he the visionary billionaire?
“No,” he laughs. “Several orders of magnitude away from that, unfortunately.”
Personally I believe that government, rather than money, tends to be the primary factor limiting the development of new technologies. I've been told that it took Diamandis 11 years merely to get FAA certification for zero-gravity flights. Doesn't this kind of thing make him feel frustrated?
He agrees that it does. But, “The only thing greater than my frustration is my stubbornness,” he tells me. “Byron Lichtenberg, my cofounder of Zero-G, was twice a space shuttle astronaut. In may 1993 we waltzed into the FAA headquarters, saying we wanted to commercialize what NASA had been doing for the past 30 years. The idea of putting an airplane through this rollercoaster maneuver and having people float about the cabin was not allowed for in FAA regulations. In fact the FAA lawyers flatly told us it was impossible. I refused to give up, but we had to out-wait three administrations.”
I ask if there was a particular tipping point which made it happen.
“We started offering zero-gravity flights in Russia. We told [FAA Administrator] Marion Blakey that we had to take American citizens to Russia to experience zero gravity. Shouldn't they be allowed to do it in the United States? We finally got the focus and attention of someone who was sufficiently visionary to change the rules.”
Since the Ansari X-Prize, which Diamandis popularized, was awarded to Space Composites, I'm wondering if he'll be riding their space-plane.
“I was offered a flight on Virgin Galactic,” he says, “but I turned it down at the time, my goal being to fly to space on one of our own suborbital vehicles. The Rocket Racing League just announced we are developing our own suborbital vehicle. I intend to be on the first commercial flight. We plan to offer flights for $100,000. We think a little competition will be good for them [Virgin].”
In case you haven't heard of the Rocket Racing League, it's a far-fetched yet serious attempt to create an entire new spectator sport, featuring rocket-powered airplanes racing each other through a three-dimensional course, with virtual participation available for an audience online. Check out www.rocketracingleague.com. Also check Armadillo Aerospace, the company codeveloping the aircraft that will be used in League events.
Finally I ask Diamandis the most obvious question: What's so special about weightlessness?
“I've experienced it 70 times, and it's still an amazing amount of fun. It's a sense of pure joy, a magic show, a feeling of bliss, a return to a childhood state. It creates a true sense of wonder. It's hard, as an adult, to have a new experience that is so transcendent, because normally everything you do is a slight variation of something else you've already done. But here is something completely different and wonderful.”
From his tone of spontaneous enthusiasm, you'd almost imagine he never answered that question before.
Inevitably there are some down sides to zero-G. Here are the ones that I am aware of:
1. Brevity. Each period of pure weightlessness only lasts for about 20 seconds, being preceded and followed by a transitional period of reduced weight. Why do the cycles have to be so brief? As the airplane reaches the top of its arc and starts to dive, naturally the downward component of its speed increases rapidly. Sooner or later, and preferably sooner, the aircraft has to straighten out, inducing the 1.8-G force mentioned previously. Boeing designed the 727 to withstand a 2.5-G downward force, but Zero Gravity Corporation stays well within that limit. Fortunately each 20-second cycle is just long enough to be enjoyable.
2. Price. The cost of aviation fuel has to be shared among just 35 passengers. Since I had dreamed of going into space for about forty-five years, and this was the closest I could get, I have no regrets. Still, even for me, it was a once-in-a-lifetime indulgence.
3. Inflexibility. As noted above, you can't opt out if your plans change, or if the flight date changes. Zero-G only has one airplane, and if it needs maintenance, your flight will be postponed. Zero-G also has to ask nicely for air space in which to perform its maneuvers, and cannot fly unless it is granted this favor by federal authorities.
4. You may get sick. I didn't, but on my flight, two people did. They seemed to be having a great time at the beginning, but they ended up holding paper bags and clutching their stomachs thoughtfully. I'm told that nausea is relatively rare, and the risk of it increases with the number of weightless cycles. Personally I found the experience far more benign than sitting in a small boat in turbulent water, and less disruptive than even a mild roller-coaster.
5. Environment. If you care about such things, your friends may accuse you of enlarging your carbon footprint by consuming a lot of aviation fuel for a frivolous purpose. Personally this doesn't bother me, because I don't see climate change as a problem that can be solved by “economizing.” Some sort of technology-driven solution will be necessary. Sulfur particles, for instance, have been proposed as a means to reflect sunlight at high altitudes, and we know that this can create global cooling, since it has occurred naturally in conjunction with volcanic eruptions. Check the Wikipedia entry for Nobel laureate and atmospheric scientist Paul Crutzen: The mere fact that his suggestion has spawned numerous dire warnings about its potential harm indicates that it should be considered seriously. If it wasn't worthy of serious consideration, the doomsayers wouldn't bother to warn us against it. In any case, I think PR events that popularize the commercialization of space are not frivolous, since sooner or later the human race will need space resources, as Diamandis points out.
6. Not-so-great customer care is the final negative that I have to list for Zero-G, just to balance all my lyricism. While the personnel who guided us through our adventure were attentive, well-informed, friendly, and patient enough to answer endless questions, the back office didn't create such a warm-fuzzy experience. After I paid my $4,000 by clicking that little button on the web site, I got less response than if I had bought an item for $4 on eBay—which is to say, no response at all. The lack of an emailed acknowledgment or receipt caused me to wonder, briefly, if the Zero-G web site had been hijacked, or if the whole thing was a new kind of Nigerian ”send money!” scam. After a few days I called to see if my cash was in the right hands, and reached voicemail. Eventually someone did call me back apologetically, but still it was a long while before I received email with a PDF of the contractual agreement that each passenger must sign, and during that time I didn't know what was going on. Lastly, each of us was promised a DVD containing still photos shot by the staff photographer, and video recorded by four automatic cameras in the airplane, but almost two months later, no disc has shown up. Fortunately I took a few pictures of my own. Today I was told that the company had problems with the DVD production people, and the discs finally have been mailed.
To be fair, Zero-G shouldn't be judged harshly, since it is operating right out there on the margins of feasibility. We early adopters should expect to rough it a little.
How it Works
Lastly, some technical background. Even though it feels as if you're defying gravity, in reality, you're surrendering to it. By analogy:
Imagine an ant in a small capsule, such as a pill bottle. So long as the bottle is motionless relative to the Earth, gravity holds the ant against the bottom of the bottle, and he feels “heavy.” Then someone drops the bottle, and during the moments before the bottle hits the ground, the ant enjoys the experience of weightlessness, because he and the bottle are both in free fall. Every particle in the bottle, and every particle in the ant, are complying with gravity, so there's no feeling of resistance (if we ignore air resistance).
Now, imagine that instead of merely dropping the bottle, someone tosses it up into the air. Initially the ant feels heavier than normal, as the throw accelerates the bottle upward; but as soon as it leaves the person's hand, the ant feels weightless, because once again all the particles in the ant and the bottle are equally affected by gravity—even during the upward section of the trajectory.
So it is with a zero-gravity flight, which gives everyone (and every thing) on the airplane the ant-in-a-bottle experience. Two pilots control the aircraft, one minimizing lateral movements while the other controls vertical orientation, injecting the airplane into a parabolic path which emulates the arc that it would follow if it were thrown freely across the sky.
When Virgin Galactic starts to offer suborbital flights, they will induce weightlessness for around 5 minutes. This will cost 40 times the current price of a Zero-G flight, and will entail travel in a space-plane that is considerably less well proven than a Boeing 727. Of course the Virgin flight will provide a wonderful view, and the 5 minutes of weightlessness will be contiguous, instead of being divided into short segments. Still, $200,000 is a price that few people can pay.
Seen in these terms, maybe the Zero-G flight isn't so unaffordable after all.