My Lengthy Zero-G Flight Report

(I posted this originally on this date on my old blog; I’ve re-posted the original text here and dated the post to the original post date.)

The short version: Yes, it was fun.

At the end my Zero-G flight this morning, between the last parabola and touchdown at the Orlando airport, I pulled out my iPhone and began taking notes to better preserve the experience. This is going to be a bit random, but the notes were sort of stream-of-consciousness.

First, I’m going to use the term Zero-G here. Get over it. At NASA, we don’t like using that term, but I’m using here because, one, people know what that means; two, the company’s name is Zero-G and they used the term, and, three, I still maintain that since a reduced gravity flight can recreate conditions from positive to negative G’s, it has to cross zero at some point.

One thing that surprised me was how I felt after we pulled four zero-g parabolas in a row. Even during level flight, I felt more heavy than usual. Surprised at how quickly I adapted to weightlessness. In our book, Joe Kerwin includes a poem he wrote while on Skylab, along the lines of wondering if that’s not our natural state. I identified with that in a new way during the flight.

On one of the parabolas, they handed out M&Ms. I got my hands on one, and overestimated myself. Way back in 2003, Expedition 5 space station science officer Peggy Whitson (who’s currently commanding Expedition 16) visited Marshall with the STS-113 space shuttle crew that brought her back to Earth at the end of her stay. They commented on the fact that when she went up there, she was a rookie, looking to her crewmates for adaptation advice, but when they brought her back from her first flight, she was far and away the microgravity expert. As evidence, they showed a video of her eating M&Ms. Other astronauts were leaning forward to eat floating candies, while Peggy had a cloud of maybe a dozen of them a foot or two away from her face, and was just tapping them lightly and sending them flying into her mouth. I didn’t think I was that good, but I did place my one M&M about four inches from my mouth, and tapped it toward me. Yeah, I missed.

I need to start a group on Facebook titled “I’ve used my iPhone in lunar gravity.” If you meet that qualification, you’re welcome to join, too. (OK, that was a bit smug. But it is a cool thing to be able to say.)

It was really hard to control my movement in zero-G. For the non-lay reader, translation was very difficult; attitude was a bit easier. A bit. I think, though, that I was just really bad at it.

While I’d looked forward to the whole flying like Superman thing, the thing I’d been looking forward to perhaps most was the serenity. A little over a year ago, I was riding the super-tall Goliath roller coaster at Six Flags, which gives you two or three seconds of free fall. While everyone else was screaming, I was at utter peace. I’d looked forward to experience that again on a larger and greater scale. On my last parabola, I tucked my knees against my chest, closed my eyes, and just floated. And got two or three seconds of serenity before bouncing against a wall. Particularly hard, really, considering I hadn’t given myself any momentum. Talking about it with our “coach” afterwards, she said that some flights were just more “drifty” than others, and that ours was rather drifty. Which explains, in part, why I kept floating out of our area of the plane. In part.

In addition to bouncing off the walls, I bounced off other passengers more than once. It was just kind of crowded. The person who gave me the ticket had suggested that I perform military marching maneuvers on one of the parabolas. One can perform about-face, left-face and right-face turns while floating in mid-air by moving your arms at the same time, thus demonstrating conservation of angular momentum. As it turned out, I didn’t do this, because I really didn’t have room.

I mentioned that it wasn’t as serene as I’d hoped, or as some of the staff had indicated. Your mileage may vary, though; it might have just been the driftiness of our flight. That said, those few seconds of serenity were purely transcendent. One of those times I wish I could bottle and save for later.

We started the parabolas with one Martian gravity arc, roughly one-third Earth gravity. That was followed by four lunar gravity arcs, roughly one-sixth Earth gravity. They recommended we try doing push-ups at the beginning of these arcs, to get a feel for it. I could do one-handed push-ups easily in the Martian G, and could push myself completely off the floor with two fingers in lunar G. I envy the first people who get to live and work on the moon in a shirt-sleeve environment, unencumbered by the heavy suits the Apollo astronauts wore and with a bit of room to move around. It’s going to be incredible. The feeling of walking in lunar G felt much more like zero g in a lot of ways than it did Earth g, despite really having more in common with the rules of the latter. (I also tried doing a push-up in the 1.8 G between the reduced gravity periods. I could prop myself up on my arms, but couldn’t lift my knees.)

I took the motion sickness medicine they prepare and recommended we take. I did not get queasy at all. There was a very brief period of feeling a bit off — very brief — as we transitioned from hyper-g to weightlessness on some of the parabolas, but it was short and not at all severe. After the last parabola, the guy next to me said that probably really was enough for him, and I agreed. They intentionally stop after about 15 parabolas, because most people can handle that without problems, but are more likely to become nauseous after that. Someone did get sick on our flight, though, as evidenced by the two white bags a staff member carried past from the front of the plane between parabolas at one point.

Not sure why I made a note about this, but I did, so I’m including it — between reduced gravity periods, I would lift my hand to get a feel for the G-forces. So there you go. More interestingly, they recommended that we lie on our backs and look at a fixed point on the ceiling during the hyper-g periods. This was in line with what I’d heard from other people beforehand, that the worst problems with dizziness come during the hyper-g periods if you move or look around too much, since you’re visual and vestibular inputs won’t match. By about halfway through, though, I could sit up against the wall and even look around some during the hyper-g period without problems.

I didn’t take it for this reason, but I realized on the plane that I had my iPhone holster, which I’d worn to carry the phone. It was a bit of serendipity that I’d left it on, though. Part of the holster was made from a Soyuz parachute, from the Soyuz used by the Expedition 8 crew whom I got to interview while they were in orbit back in 2004. So, today, it got to experience weightlessness for a second time. I did intentionally carry, though it stayed in my pocket the entire time, my NASA badge. Just ’cause. The agency had nothing, directly, to do with me being on the flight, but I like the fact that I’ll be wearing a badge that’s been weightless.

A crew from Mythbusters, including Jamie and Adam, was on our flight working on a segment for an episode coming up in May or June. They were in the front third of the plane; our team was in the middle, so we could somewhat see them, but didn’t interact with them. They had faux Apollo suits, and were demonstrating moonwalking. (Our coach, Brooke, ended up with a space suit glove that had floated loose at the end of the last parabola.) Thanks to their presence, we got an extra lunar parabola, so that was cool. A bit of irony — I hate to admit it, but I’d never seen an entire episode of the show; I just don’t watch that much TV. Fortunately, my traveling companion, Joe, had turned it on in the hotel room a couple of nights earlier, and I’d watched it. Good stuff. So when we saw them pre-flight, I recognized them. Joe was awed. Of course, now I’ll have to start watching the show, simply for name-dropping purposes. “Hey, did you see Mythbusters last night? Say, that reminds me of the time …”

The little surprises, like the aforementioned fact that it was much more kinetic than I expected, really added a lot, and made it a very rewarding experience. One of the things I wanted from the flight was for it to inform my writing and spaceflight knowledge, and it did that. I figured I had a pretty good idea what it would be like. In some ways I did, but other things caught me by surprise. Of course, as I mentioned before, my experiences may not transfer to others, since apparently there is some amount of difference between flights. But even the awareness of that diversity is something I didn’t know before.

Speaking of diversity, I would say there were more foreign nationals on the flight than U.S. citizens, particularly not counting the Mythbusters team. I talked to people from Montreal and London, and the person in the seat next to me on the flight was there from Poland with a friend. I’m not sure what the flag was that two other people kept making sure to include in pictures, but it seemed to be a point of pride for them for two people from their country to be making a weightless flight. There was also a fair amount of diversity in age — one team had three generations of the same family.

My team included another David who had written a book, David Mills. His book is about how the universe doesn’t need God to exist.

The coach for my team, Brooke Owens, got involved with Zero-G because she previously worked for the company’s founder, Peter Diamandis, who also founded the X Prize, which was where she worked for him. Today, she works for the FAA, in the department that’s establishing guidelines for regulating commercial passenger spaceflight. It was kind of interesting talking to her, as representatives of new space and old space, about how exciting things are today in both of our domains, and how incredibly cool it is to be working in this field at this time. We really are lucky.

Along those lines, it reminded me of a conversation I’ve had with a few people, particularly founder and editor Rob Pearlman, along the lines of the fact that if we do our job right, we could put ourselves out of work. Our job is to inspire interest in spaceflight, but as that happens over the coming years and decades, more people will become involved. So perhaps there’s a point as I near retirement age where I’m essentially saying, “Hey, I’d like to talk to you about spaceflight.” And people reply, “Yeah, that’s great, but I just saw the pictures my neighbor took during his spaceflight last week.” They made mention a couple of times during the day about how we were now part of an elite group who had experienced weightless, and, perhaps so, but I don’t really have any sense of being in an elite group, in large part because it’s a decent-size group that’s continuing to grow rapidly. And someday, that will be suborbital spaceflight. And then, who knows? But, again, exciting times.

The whole experience was rather tiring, though lack of sleep the night before and the caffeine in the motion sickness medicine wearing off before the scopalamine may have contributed to that.

I’m sure it’s possible, hypothetically, to walk around in a flight suit without a bit of a swagger, but not for me.

Did I mention that, apparently, I was just plain bad at this? That was disappointing. I once played Star Wars Monopoly with some friends. I’m lousy at Monopoly, but somehow thought that my love of Star Wars would give me an advantage. Which, of course, it didn’t. Similar concept today. Having written a book on living in weightlessness apparently doesn’t make you any better at getting around in it.

The plane was a Boeing 727, which really excited the guy from Poland sitting next to me, because he’s an aviation buff, and you simply can’t fly a 727 over there any more. In fact, he’d only seen one once, when a sports team from the U.S. had flown in on one. And, yes, he went to the airport to see it when they did. Inside, the plane was kind of like if a passenger 727 had been bred with an insane asylum. Seven rows of seating in the back, just like a regular passenger jet. They brought snacks and water, and you had to put your seat backs and tray tables in the up and locked positions. Ahead of that, though, was a large open area with a padded floor and no windows.

There’s a sense of family, apparently, that comes from making a zero-g flight together. Before the first parabola, we all sat in a circle, our Zero-G-socked feet touching. It almost made you want to sing Kumbaya. The sense of comfortableness was handy, though, since we were soon bouncing into each other randomly.

On one parabola in particular, I did this awesome descent at the end, sitting in mid-air and then floating gently down into the same sitting position on the floor. It was perfect, and I was proud. It had to have looked like I knew what I was doing.

The pictures I took with my iPhone in flight are awful. I’m afraid the pictures they took aren’t going to be much better; I can’t imagine I did anything the least bit photogenic. I even tried to do the Superman-style-flying-toward-the-camera bit, but was foiled on each occasion by other people in the way and my own ineptness. There was a professional photographer on board, and three video cameras mounted on the wall. We’ll get copies of it all. Hopefully, I’ll have a decent picture from that to put online by Tuesday, but I’m not getting my hopes up of anything great. I do look forward to seeing the video from the first zero-g parabola, when I smacked my head into the camera helplessly and painfully. And, by the way, I got a haircut a week ago just for this occasion.

Another small bit of disappointment. I chose to do the flight from Florida, in part, because I really liked the idea of taking off and landing from the shuttle landing strip, just to be able to say I’d landed there. However, since the shuttle launch was, as of this morning, still scheduled for today, we were relocated to Orlando.

There was very little buy-in for the planned parabola activities. The recommended that on the first lunar parabola, we not even try to stand up, but do the push-ups and perhaps bounce on our knees. Most people basically immediately popped up into a standing position and started bouncing around. There were zero-g parabolas that were scheduled for M&Ms, or playing with water, or playing catch by tossing other passengers around. Very few people did. In fact, I wasn’t even aware that we were on the water parabola until I felt rain while floating around. Seeing the tiny water droplets floating in the air was pretty cool, though. And it was interesting watching the water fall from the ceiling as gravity gradually returned.

I also made a note that said “Hyper g prep” but I have no idea what it means. Possibly referring to the fact that, over the two days before the flight, I rode a centrifuge at the Astronaut Hall of Fame and Mission:Space at Epcot, both of which featured Hyper G, and neither of which gave me any problems.

Anyway, there’s my notes. Doesn’t really do justice to the experience, but I just needed to get at least that much out while it was still fresh on my mind.