When I was growing up in the 1960's, space was the final frontier. The closest regular people got to it was watching godlike astronauts, selected from among thousands of athlete-geniuses, do amazing things: float like Superman, whack golf balls on the surface of the moon, and describe from their darkened capsule the achingly beautiful curvature of the earth. To picture ourselves performing such feats, we read science fiction, which described worlds in which anyone could fly in space.
Last fall, science fiction became science fact. British mogul Richard Branson formed Virgin Galactic—the first suborbital "spaceline"—in partnership with Mojave Aerospace Ventures. Mojave's SpaceShipOne, designed by pioneering aircraft engineer Burt Rutan and bankrolled by Microsoft billionaire Paul G. Allen, had just secured the Ansari X Prize, recognizing it as the first viable space-tourism vehicle. Yet with flights on the future spaceline priced in the $200,000 range, Virgin Galactic was still well beyond most people's reach.
Then came another, less widely publicized advance: a huge shift in government policy that really could make the experience of weightlessness—or microgravity—available to almost everyone. The Federal Aviation Administration granted the Zero Gravity Corporation (Zero-G) of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, permission to fly ordinary tourists on its zero-gravity flights. These journeys cost less than $3,000 and include a day of training with an authentic retired astronaut. And unlike a suborbital flight that requires a special rocket plane and reaches an altitude of 62 miles above the earth, the Zero-G flight is on a modified commercial airliner.
"I want to do for space what Jacques Cousteau did for the ocean," said Dr. Peter Diamandis, CEO of Zero-G, who cofounded the firm with former astronaut Byron Lichtenberg. (Diamandis also created the X Prize foundation in 1996.)"Cousteau created scuba diving—diving with a self-contained underwater breathing apparatus—and made undersea exploration a personal experience. If you love oceans and adventure, you plan a scuba-diving trip. If you love space and adventure, you plan a zero-gravity flight."
Although such services have not existed long enough to prove their popularity, market research indicates that people want to fly in space. Diamandis says he has had sufficient interest to warrant flying tourists twice a month. And Space Adventures, the Virginia-based company that brokered galactic tourist Dennis Tito's trip to the International Space Station, has already received more than 100 deposits of $10,000 each for seats on the first available sub-orbital tourist flights, which will cost about $100,000 and launch in 2007.
Gravity can't be suspended in a safe chamber on the ground. To experience microgravity outside of space, one has to fly up and down in stomach-churning parabolas. While this may sound unpleasant, the weightless sensation is, as we used to say during the Apollo era, mind-blowing—even better, in my view, than it is cracked up to be.
I should point out that I have not flown on G-Force One, the modified 727 that serves as Zero-G's flagship. Nor on an Ilyushin-76, its Russian equivalent, which Space Adventures charters for its flights that take off from Star City, Russia. I have, however, experienced weightlessness on the KC-135, the NASA cargo plane colloquially known as the "Vomit Comet."
Don't get me wrong. Between a childhood of car sickness and a lifelong aversion to roller coasters, I am far from a daredevil. So three years ago, when some college students invited me to write about their experiment on a NASA student-research flight, I did not immediately say yes. But curiosity won out. Yet I feared that I would spend the entire two-hour trip lashed to a seat, throwing up.
After 10 days of required classes on the physiology of flight, the students and I took off from Ellington Field at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The plane flew normally until it reached traffic-free airspace over the Gulf of Mexico. Then the fun began.
We climbed 8,000 feet at a 45-degree angle, rising from about 24,000 feet to 32,000. This is well within the range of cruising altitude for a commercial airliner. At the crest of the parabola, the plane dived swiftly downward, also at a 45-degree angle. On a NASA student flight, this process is repeated 32 times. On the tourist flight, it occurs 15 times—with a gradual transition. Early parabolas simulate the reduced gravity of the moon and Mars, not total weightlessness.
During the ascent, I was shoved down hard against the floor with a pressure of 2 G's (G is short for gravity) or about twice my body weight. During the descent, I floated. The rapid switching from double the normal pull of gravity to no pull at all is what makes people violently ill—though scientists admit they have no reliable formula for determining who will succumb. "I've seen fighter pilots so sick on that thing that they had to be hauled out with a forklift," a seasoned astronaut told me. By contrast, mild-mannered researchers who are not particularly fit often do fine.
To keep researchers functioning, NASA flight surgeons offer them Scopdex, a potent combination of scopolamine, which blunts the nausea, and dexadrine, which blunts the scopolamine. While Zero-G does not —and cannot—make such strong drugs available to tourists, both the company and I recommend at least discussing them with your own physician before the flight.