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Breaking the bonds of the Earth experiencing true weightlessness

September 7, 2007

Breaking the bonds of the Earth – experiencing true weightlessness
By Michael Lafferty

NCsoft’s Tabula Rasa party culminates with a Zero-G flight and a new perspective 

Transcendent: (adjective) going beyond ordinary limits; surpassing; exceeding; (in modern realism) referred to, but beyond, direct apprehension; outside consciousness. – www.dictionary.com

There is an old phrase, a mantra (if you will), that athletes sometimes employ. “Be the ball! Be the ball!”  It is meant to curve attention to a focal point, to get the athlete to concentrate. When it comes to the Zero-G weightless experience, it takes on an entirely different meaning. Teammates stand next to bulkheads of the 727-200 and another member of the team hugs knees to chest and is passed around, like a ball.

We never got to that point. The rest of the experience seemed all too brief and each passenger of the 130th flight of the Zero-G plane took every precious second to float, spin, twist, crawl along ceilings and relish the experience.

NCsoft organized the adventure for some of the attendees of the Tabula Rasa event in Austin Wednesday night. Thursday morning, approximately 30 passengers arrived at the Signature hangar and were processed for the flight, which took almost two hours. The processing including issuing flight suits and jump bags, taking a strong prescription motion-sickness pill, and watching a film that was about 30 minutes in length. The film was designed as a briefing and before tickets were issued for the seats.

The rules were simple. Don’t jump, don’t swim, don’t kick your legs, obey the flight crew at all times. There was good reason. In order to pull off weightlessness, the plane had to perform parabolic maneuvers, and that would also mean that while true weightlessness would be achieved, passengers would also experience gravity that was close to twice that on Earth.


"You will giggle like a little girl," we were told, and judging by goofy grins
on everyone's face (not just mine), they were right.

How the plane does it …

Consider a parabolic maneuver (and this is a specially-designed and thoroughly tested plane) akin to a plane following the contours of rolling hills.

According to a FAQ on the www.gozerog.com Web site:

“Specially trained pilots fly parabolic maneuvers between approximately 24,000 and 32,000 feet altitude. The plane is initially heading upwards until it reaches the peak of the parabola and at the point at which the captain reaches the appropriate altitude; he flies into a shape of a parabola. It is over the top of the parabola that gravity is perfectly defied and guests inside experience weightlessness. When inside the aircraft, it is extremely smooth and you are unable to tell which direction the airplane is facing as it becomes a magical floating room. For about 30 seconds everything in the plane is completely weightless. After the pilot has sustained the maneuver to the maximum time, he begins to gain altitude again as he gently “pulls out” of the parabola and repeats it again. In between parabolas, everything in the aircraft becomes heavy as the pull out generates about 1.8 g’s of force.”

Grouping up …

When the passengers were gathered, each was issued a pair of Zero-G colored socks in three colors – blue, gold and silver. Each group is assigned a team leader. For the blue team (the one I was in) it was Noah McMahon. Noah works for the company that flies the Zero-G plane. Between the film and the instructions from Noah, we were told there would be 15 parabolas. The first would be Martian 1, approximating the weight one would experience on Mars – which is 1/3 of your body weight. There would be a Lunar 1 and Lunar 2 (approximating the weight on the moon, which is 1/6 that of Earth), and then 12 Zero-G paraboloas, in which we would experience true weightlessness. For the first three parabolas, we were told to try pushing up off the mat to a standing position, do one-armed pushups and generally get a feel to the decreasing weight. In between the weightless, as the plane came out of it, we were told to obey the “Feet down! Coming out!” command, find the deck of the plane and lay flat on our backs. We would experience increasing weight, which would get up close to 2g’s. Some events were planned, and the gold-socked team seemed much better organized when it came to doing supermans (flying through the center of the plane a la the Man of Steel) or playing catch with a teammate. It just didn’t matter. Noah constantly checked to see how we were doing and let his team do what it wanted, which meant sporting goofy grins and trying to squeeze each moment possible from the experience.


I've had better hair days, but gravity usually helps create the style;
 lack of gravity allows hair to take on a life of its own

What it feels like …

When the plane begins its climb, gravity increases. One is supposed to lay flat on his or her back, staring at a point on the ceiling. You can feel the muscles trying to melt into the floor, cheeks are pulled downward and the body gets heavy. Time to experiment a little, I reasoned. I crossed one ankle over the other and it was very uncomfortable. The added weight from the top leg started to hurt the bottom leg. In trying to lift an arm, it was a struggle to get it six inches off the deck. It was as though gravity was a giant hand, pulling down, not quite constricting, but holding tight and unwilling to allow escape. And then, as the plane crested the climb, it was as though Earth gave up and the hand released its grip. The body got light quickly and the deck seemed to fall away from underneath. There was no pressure on the body, so nothing could truly hurt, unless you pushed off the ground too hard and head-planted into the ceiling.

But knees that protest landing on them under the influence of gravity were remarkably pain-free as time and again they found a purchase on the wall, ceiling or deck and pushed off. Twisting, spinning, turning had no effects. The stomach did not lurch, the muscles moved fluidly and without resistance. By the 10th Zero-G parabola (from 10 through 12), there was no sense of direction. No up or down. Hearing the “Feet Down!” command meant trying to visually identify the floor and then push toward it gently.

Bodies collided, but again, nothing was jarring. Bumping another person was merely a point of resistance that applied motion in another direction. You bumped, and moved off in the opposition direction. It was so serene, so sedate, so peaceful.

The film briefing had referred to it as a “transcending experience … zen-like” and it was correct. The laws of gravity were defied and while under it jurisdiction, it cannot lay claim to me anymore. I have felt true freedom and it was a time to be cherished.


The graduation ceremony was also the opportunity for a photo shoot
with Zero-G's Dr. Peter Diamandis (left) and NCsoft's Richard Garriott, (right).

Afterwards …

When the 15 parabolas were finished, we all took our seats. One would think that the flight back to the field would be awash with chatter, people trying to put into words that which almost defied description. But the flight was quiet. There were those sitting with eyes closed, faint smiles dancing on their lips, and even – in some cases – a hand gently turning in the air before them as though they were trying to recapture the feeling.

Back at the hangar, following a brief ‘graduation’ ceremony, there were framed group photos, a small buffet and champagne to toast the grads, the Zero-G company and Richard and Robert Garriott, the men who were responsible for organizing the flight (they are also investors in the Zero-G corporation – which has taken Stephen Hawkings into parabolas, and has been used for filming movies like Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 with Tom Hanks). But even then, there was an uncanny silence. I mentioned I could still feel the sensation of weightlessness, a muscle memory tingling and longing for that feeling again. Another grad, sitting at the table, said he felt the same.

When the opportunity was first presented, I said I had no longing to journey into space. I viewed the ride as the ultimate carnival ride. But was much more than that. It was like being touched by an ethereal hand, released from the bonds of the Earth and given a freedom that not only touched the body, but the spirit and mind. Even though the moments were all too brief (up to approximately 6 minutes total in a weightless condition), it opened the eyes to new possibilities, gave new reference points and made me hunger for more. Was this a carnival ride? No. Would I want to travel into space? Absolutely.

Gw
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