March 15th, 2009

storyteller doll


Yesterday was my Zero-G flight and I'm barely getting down to earth enough now to write about it.

As a reminder, I saw the booth from Zero-G at the adventure travel show a few weeks back and immediately said, "oh, wow!" And, yes, I said that out loud in public. Their video showing the weightless experience has got to be one of the most effective marketing tools ever. Since I was already aware that they existed and, in fact, had been thinking about their flights that very morning, I took that as an omen that I was meant to do this. I hesitated over the cost and told myself that I could spend the money if I finished in the upper half in the ACPT. Also, it may be expensive but it's still only about a quarter of what a trip to the North Pole costs.

Anyway, yesterday was the day. I got to the meeting place (the Hyatt at Dulles) early since I had inevitably worried about being late. They had a light breakfast out (basically fruit and pastries) and I drank some ginger tea on the grounds that ginger is a good motion sickness preventative. (Well, also because I like ginger, but I like other sorts of tea, too.) We checked in (which required showing photo ID to TSA agents) and got our flight suits. I'd worried about it fitting, but it was fine. You can wear the flight suit over your clothes, but they recommend you don't as it is better to be cooler in the plane. (By the way, you get to keep the flight suit.) We all noticed that our name tags were upside down. The staff explained that it's a NASA tradition that you get to turn it right side up after you've experienced weightlessness.

There was a bit of a glitch with showing the briefing video, so we didn't see the whole thing. Instead, one of the staff went through the explanation of how parabolic flight works and we only watched the mandatory safety part of the briefing. The most important thing they tell you is, "don't jump." You're also advised not to kick or swim, since that would tend to make you hit other people. They also consider it important that you know things like where the oxygen masks are, since they're not where they are on a normal airplane. There isn't any more chance of needing them than there is on any flight, but the FAA takes hypoxia seriously.

The plane itself is a converted 727. The only thing done to it mechanically had to do with the hydraulics. The interior, however, is very different. There are 6 rows of seats at the back, while the rest of the plane has no seats and is padded on the floor, ceiling and sides. There are only two windows and nobody bothers looking out of them at all. The padded area is divided into three zones, one for each "team" of 12 people. The teams are differentiated by color (gold, silver, blue - I was on silver) and identified by the color of their socks. (Shoes are collected after take-off, since you don't want anybody wearing them while floating around.) Each team has a coach to help them with the experience. There are also two flight attendants and a photographer. We never really saw the pilot, co-pilot and navigator.

After a TSA wanding, during which you have to take the barf bag out of your flight suit pocket since it has a metal strip in it, we went to the plane. We had photos (both by team and of the whole group) taken and then boarded via a rear staircase. We took our seats and waited impatiently to get to the designated airspace for the parabolic flight that creates the different gravity conditions. It took a while but, eventually, we were able to go to our float zones where we lied down on the floor. The first part of each parabola is the increased gravity (1.8 G) part and it mostly feels just like added pressure. You get thirty seconds of that. Then comes the fun part.

The first parabola was Martian gravity (about 1/3 Earth gravity). Most of us spent those 30 seconds doing things like push-ups, including one-handed ones. All too soon the call came out, "Feet down, coming out" and we got back down onto the floor. (The point of the call out is that you want to land on your feet or butt, not your head.) The next two parabolas were lunar gravity and we all practiced bounding around during those. Then came two weightless parabolas. It's very hard to describe. Basically, you're lying on the floor and all of a sudden you're floating. You can flip over and fly like a superhero and curl up and spin and so on. It all got a bit crazy, since were weren't used to things at all. I'm not sure exactly how it happened since everything was going on so quickly, but my glasses got broken somewhere in one of those weightless parabolas. (One of the other people on my team thought she kicked me. I don't remember that - I think they just got knocked off and, since I had them on a tight elastic strap, the bridge broke.) The flight attendant took them from me and I did the rest of the flight somewhat blurrily. (I had my spare glasses in my car, so it wasn't a major issue. If I hadn't had those, it would have been a real problem, since I couldn't have driven home.)

After those 5 parabolas, there was a brief period of level flight. Then came two more sets of 5 weightless parabolas each. During the last set, I got to be the "ball" as two people played catch with me. There was also the opportunity to release M&M's and try to catch them in one's mouth (which I did not attempt without glasses). And our coach released water for people to try to catch globules of. Had I thought of it, it would have been cool to get into a lotus position.

I didn't get motion sick, whether due to natural resilience or my acupressure wrist bands. A few people felt a bit queasy during the last couple of parabolas. As far as I heard, the only person who had to use a barf bag was one of a group of 8 Mexican men who had won the trip as a reward for sales for the Modelo brewery. (There was also a guy who won the trip in a radio contest and a couple of people who'd bid on it in charity auctions. And a writer who is working on a story for GQ about NASA.)

We continued lying on the floor for a while on the way back. Eventually most people sat up and we were served water and snacks. When we got close to Dulles, we had to return to our seats and buckle up. We got our shoes back and we each had our photo taken exiting the plane. We also got our name tags turned right side up.

Back at the Hyatt, I grabbed my car key and got my spare glasses. That let me enjoy the luncheon and "regravitation ceremony." Each person got called up and got a diploma certifying that he or she "has defied gravity, communed with floating objects, levitated, and otherwise successfully completed the Zero G weightless experience." That also included a copy of one of the pre-flight group photos. I should have other photos in a couple of days.

The whole thing was incredible fun. I feel truly blessed to have had this experience. You already know if you're the type of person who might enjoy this and, if you are, I highly recommend it.