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Recreational Space Travel

The astronaut who made the forklift comment had advised me to spend the first few parabolas belted to my seat. As it happened, however, this advice was sadistic. When you are loosely strapped to a seat and suddenly float "up," your body is baffled. It interprets the pressure of the seat belt as an indication that you are hanging upside down. This is called the "inversion illusion." In defiance of what you know to be true, your brain tells you that the plane has flipped over.

Undaunted by this—and miraculously not sick—I unbelted myself and crawled forward during a weightless interval into the plane's padded cabin, clutching the elastic strips on the floor. Soon I was mid-cabin—soaring—and having what I must, with astonishment, characterize as the coolest experience of my life.

I was Peter Pan, a levitating yogi, hovering the way I had hovered only in dreams. I beamed, giggled, and watched in amazement as equally euphoric students managed to collect data. The flight doctor helped me do a triple somersault. And a very un-NASA-like notion lodged in my head: I was suspended in the metaphorical palm of God.

Skeptical friends have suggested that the dexadrine I took played a part in these feelings. But I tell them they should not dismiss something they don't understand, particularly when they, too, can now experience it.

The physical sensation stayed with me for weeks, which, I learned from a NASA doctor, is not uncommon, and is similar to the feeling sailors have when they reach land. At night I dreamed of gliding eagle-like above my neighborhood, and of transcending limitations.

After experiencing weightlessness, I'm not at all surprised that Edgar Mitchell, an Apollo astronaut who walked on the moon, became a mystic when he returned to Earth. He founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences, which examines parapsychological phenomena.

Zero-G founder Diamandis is a medical doctor with an engineering degree from MIT. He was groomed to go the astronaut route himself but instead has worked to open up space to everyone. What makes Zero-G commercially viable is that it does not own the planes it flies. It leases them from a cargo company, modifying them (by adding interior padding, for example) for two to four zero-gravity trips each month. Until this year, Zero-G mostly served Hollywood, helping movie crews shoot weightless sequences of the sort in The Matrix.

In addition to offering Zero-G flights from its Star City location, Space Adventures can arrange other near-space experiences, such as a flight on a former Soviet MiG-25 to the edge of the atmosphere, from which you can see the earth's curvature. It also has relationships with other companies developing potential commercial vehicles, including the California-based XCOR.

Yet perhaps the ultimate destination for would-be space tourists is neither Florida nor Star City, but Seattle—specifically, its newly opened Science Fiction Museum & Hall of Fame, where the books and movies that inspired space pioneers are lovingly enshrined. Before space vehicles appeared in real life, they existed, like time travel, in the minds of writers such as Jules Verne, Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and Philip K. Dick, and of movie directors like Stanley Kubrick and Ridley Scott.

The museum was funded by Microsoft's Allen, the financial force behind SpaceShipOne; Allen says that he was inspired to back the vehicle by a novel he read as a child, Heinlein's Rocket Ship Galileo, in which a group of high-school boys build their own rocket. The museum contains iconic objects, some from Allen's personal collection—including Captain Kirk's chair from the original Star Trek TV series and the minidress that Anne Francis wore in Forbidden Planet.

In its hall of Fantastic Voyages, the museum celebrates concepts of forms of transportation that exist only in fiction: teleportation, interdimensional travel, and journeys through time. But one gets the sense that after a while such ideas will become not just reality but commonplace, just as this year two things that were once equally implausible—zero-gravity flights for tourists and a private spaceship—moved from the far-fetched to the familiar.

M. G. LORD is the author of Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science, newly published by Walker & Co.


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