Once the stuff of science fiction, recreational space travel is now a burgeoning industry. M. G. Lord straps in for a spiritual, if stomach-churning, Zero-G ride.
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.
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.
Here, the latest orbital alternatives:
Take a zero-gravity flight from the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood airport in Florida (www.zerogcorp.com; under $3,000).
Reserve a seat on a suborbital flight (www.spaceadventures.com; deposit, $10,000 for a $100,000 flight beginning in 2007).
Fly on a former Soviet MiG to the edge of space (www.spaceadventures.com; about $19,000).
Visit the new Science Fiction Museum & Hall of Fame in Seattle (www.sfhomeworld.org).
SR. VP, WIMBERLY, ALLISON, TONG & GOO ARCHITECTS, HONOLULU
'Hotels of the future don't need to be locked in place. An airship could float gently above the countryside and drop down somewhere for lunch. An orbiting space resort could offer weightless recreational activities'