Gabriel Spitzer, Space Reporter
This week I got what we call in the biz a "plum assignment." I joined a group of Chicago-area teachers aboard a jet designed to create weightless conditions. It does this by parabolic flight -- a steep climb followed by a controlled nosedive. The crest of each hill produces weightlessness "¦ the trough produces 1.8 Gs of pressure (meaning, you weigh almost twice as much as usual).
The ostensible purpose of this trip is to promote science and math education in schools (and to drum up good PR for its corporate sponsor, the defense contractor Northop Grumman). Teachers brought aboard simple science experiments -- a basketball and hoop, stuffed animals suspended by rubber bands, etc. Most of these experiments were swiftly abandoned in favor of superman flight, backflips and manic giggling. Here's what it was like (complete with videos!).
Going into each parabola, the passengers start out lying flat on the floor of the "floating lounge" (an empty, padded stretch of fuselage). As the plane rounds out the bottom of the parabola, you get pressed against the floor. It becomes nearly impossible to lift an arm, and just turning your head risks neck strain. Then as the plane nears the crest, the flight attendant guy calls out: "Pushing over, Zero 1!"
It feels like you go from wearing lead clothes to floating in a swimming pool. The world quickly becomes a blur of legs, cameras, flotsam, walls, butts, and so on. People bump into each other and go flying off in opposite directions. Everyone is giggling insanely. After about 20 seconds, I would generally find myself in a cluster of floating, flailing people. They tell you not to jump, because you'll just keep going until you slam into the wall or ceiling. Still, it's hard not to "¦ and swim and kick and thrash around.
Then the guy would yell, "Legs down, coming up!" This means gravity is returning: you are about to hit the floor, so better get your legs under you. It was nearly impossible to tell which direction was down, and I came darn close to landing on my face a few times. People often landed in a heap.
Then you'd have to hurry up and get lying down, just in time to have gravity come crushing back on you. This was the tough part -- going from weightless to sumo wrestler within a half-minute. We did this over and over. Now, I have a strong stomach, but by the end I was queasy as hell. I went so far as to break out the sick bag, but‚ I managed to hold on to my breakfast.
I'm told they used this sort of plane to film some scenes in "Apollo 13," and that they nicknamed the plane "The Vomit Comet." Luckily, I did not have to learn what weightless vomit looks, feels and smells like -- though I'm sure it would have been fascinating.