Breaking the bonds of the Earth experiencing true weightlessness

September 7, 2007

Breaking the
bonds of the Earth – experiencing true weightlessness

Michael Lafferty

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. –

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

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.

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 Web site:

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

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.

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

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.