September 22, 2014

Like Nothing on Earth

Experience the exhilarating feeling of weightlessness on a
zero-gravity flight

By Alan Fox

(Scroll down to see a slide show.)

I've had some pretty adventurous rides over the years.

I've swooped low over giraffes and crocodiles in the Okavango Delta of Botswana, hanging out of a helicopter, foot on the skid, camera in one hand and the other gripping the back of the pilot's chair, white-knuckle style.

I've floated over the Serengeti at dawn in a hot-air balloon, silently drifting above hippos and jackals, wildebeest and zebras. I've crossed glaciers and fjords in Alaska and bounced in thermals rising from the Kalahari Desert, riding shotgun with the pilot in tiny, single-engine planes.

As memorable as these days were, I can honestly say that my gravity-defying flight with Zero G was the most amazing and exhilarating time of my life.

The flight from Las Vegas began like any other, buckled into a seat for takeoff and climbing into the sky above the desert to an altitude of 32,000 feet. It was there that our plane leveled off, but our adrenaline levels continued to rise.

We unfastened our seat belts, removed our shoes and walked to a 70-foot-long section of the modified 727 that had no windows, seats or overhead bins. We separated into three teams, each with a coach, and sat on the soft, padded floor for instructions.

A few minutes later, lying flat on our backs in our blue flight suits, we began an experience that is simply unlike anything on Earth.

G Force One, the plane operated by Zero Gravity Corp. -- or Zero G -- simulates weightlessness. It provides the same experience that NASA and the Russian Space Agency have used for four decades to train astronauts for the weightlessness of space.

Zero G is the only company in the world that offers such flights to the general public. You may have seen the company on TV -- recent segments of "Good Morning America," "The Apprentice," "The Martha Stewart Show" and "The Biggest Loser" were filmed on board.

How safe is Zero G? The company has successfully flown more than 4,000 passengers on more than 180 flights in four years and was recently hired by NASA to conduct weightless training for astronauts, in the same plane. This is the first time a private company has ever operated such flights for NASA, which has simulated weightlessness in its own smaller aircraft for nearly 50 years without an accident.

Last month, I headed to Las Vegas with a few colleagues to see firsthand if the weightless experience lived up to the hype. Let me just say that my jaw still hits the floor when I think about it.

NASA and Zero G simulate weightlessness with something that is called parabolic flight, a series of relatively steep climbs and descents. The ascents are steep enough to create 1.8 g's, meaning everyone and everything in the plane weighs almost twice as much as on the ground. The descents are precise maneuvers that are varied to simulate Martian gravity (one-third that of Earth), lunar gravity (one-sixth that of Earth) and weightlessness.

As we went over the top of our first parabola, flat on our backs, we entered our Martian-gravity stage, a period lasting about 30 seconds during which we all weighed approximately one-third what we do on the ground. A 150-pound person weighs 50 pounds. We rolled over onto our stomachs to try the easiest push-ups of our lives before standing and hopping around with huge, silly grins on our faces.

"Feet down," came the call, relayed through the plane, our cue to return to the prone position as the plane pulled up into the high-g ascent portion of the parabola. For another 30 seconds or so, we felt heavy, and lifting an arm or a leg off the floor was surprisingly difficult.

"Lunar one," rang out from the coaches, signaling the first of two lunar-gravity parabolas. In this stage, a 150-pound person weighs 25 pounds. We rose from the mat carefully this time, as we had been warned that a jump might carry us into the roof of the plane. In this gravity, it was easy to push off the ground with your hands or feet, floating slowly back to the mat.

I remember watching the films of the Apollo astronauts skipping across the moon. With each step, they were suspended above the lunar surface far too long, as if the film was running in slow motion. We stood and jumped and hung in the air in much the same way.

Another "feet down" alert was followed by a high-g ascent and a second lunar-gravity parabola. During every ascent stage, we pulled 1.8 g's, which meant that a 150-pound person weighed 270 pounds. Some of us tried push-ups again, in the heavy state, for the fun of it. They were difficult but doable.

After the three reduced-gravity parabolas, our early apprehension had turned to sheer joy and anticipation of the zero-gravity parabolas to come. What would absolute weightlessness feel like? We soon found out.

The plane crested the top of the parabola and entered a new angle of descent, and the weight of our bodies just melted away. We did not need to be told we were weightless -- it was obvious when we floated off the mat.

We were warned in our preflight training not to put the usual effort into jumping in this state, as we would hurl ourselves into the ceiling, a wall or a fellow passenger at a dangerous speed. We were also cautioned that some people instinctively kick the air or flail their arms in a swimming motion in order to move. This is discouraged since it doesn't work anyway -- there is no water to push against -- and a "swimmer" might accidentally hit or kick someone floating by.

None of those things happened on our flight. It was peaceful in a way that is hard to describe -- a feeling of total freedom. During the 12 zero-g parabolas, several in our group tucked their legs to their chests and were tossed back and forth in midair. It was effortless.

We chased down and swallowed M&Ms and big, round drops of water as they floated by, courtesy of our coaches. We flew through the air with a gentle push from the mat, walls or ceiling and did somersaults without touching the ground.

In all, we spent as much time in a weightless state as Alan Shepard experienced on America's first space flight -- and the poor guy was strapped to his seat the entire time.

It's important to note that inside the plane, with no windows to provide visual cues as to which way the plane is pointing and no wind rushing by as a skydiver would experience, these ups and downs are remarkably smooth and peaceful. I had no feeling of falling or diving, no "roller coaster" sensations at all. Going weightless is just an incredible, exhilarating feeling.

At the end of Zero 12, our 15th parabola overall, there was a collective groan throughout the entire plane as we realized we were done.

We returned to the airport and to Zero G's headquarters for a "regravitation" party, including a champagne toast and light meal. We promised each other we'd meet in zero gravity again someday.

Flying With Zero G

Zero G has scheduled departures from Las Vegas, the Kennedy Space Center near Orlando, FL, and San Jose, CA. A ticket on Zero G costs $3,950 plus tax, per person, regardless of departure location, and includes the flight, training, a preflight snack, post-flight regravitation party with champagne toast and light meal, flight suit, duffel and DVD of the flight. Flights to the departure city and hotel are additional.

The entire plane can be chartered and flown to any airport that accommodates a 727, for corporate team-building exercises or employee incentives, for example.

Vacations To Go handles individual and group reservations and full-flight charters for Zero G. The company can also arrange your flight to Las Vegas or Orlando, and your hotel stay, if required. It's a perfect opportunity to add a few days in one of America's most popular vacation destinations.

To learn more about Zero G or make a reservation, call Vacations To Go at (800) 998-6897. Or, visit www.experiencezerog.com, where you can view a short video.


The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in May/June 2008. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 998-6925 for current rates and details.


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