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October 16, 2008

You will believe a journalist can fly

Posted: 10:49 AM ET

I'd seen the news stories of past zero-gravity flights. I'd watched the instructional video. I'd received personal coaching. I knew exactly what was going to happen when the plane hit that first parabola and made earth gravity go away. Still, my brain was telling me, "This can't really be happening!" when my body floated off the floor of the 727 for the first time.

Reporter Reynolds Wolf and G-Force One

I was producing a story on how Northrop Grumman is chartering a specially-modified jet to take teachers on zero-gravity plane rides. The idea is to have math and science middle-school teachers conduct experiments during a once-in-a-lifetime weightless flight, and have them take that thrilling experience back to their students, inspiring and motivating a new crop of scientists, astronauts, and engineers.

We'll bring you that story in the near future. But while I'm still in the grip of my zero-G hangover, I thought I'd share my personal encounter with weightlessness.

The day started before dawn at a hotel just outside the Atlanta airport. Reporter Reynolds Wolf, cameraman Jonathan Schaer and I met up with 30 teachers and the "floatmasters" (my term, not theirs) who would guide us during the flight. We were provided a breakfast of pastries and fruit. The floatmasters recommended avoiding dairy, protein, and excessive caffeine. They had also recommended not drinking alcohol the night before. (Not a problem for me, but I could see how a more nervous person might want a shot.) All of this, of course, was to avoid turning the flight into a "vomit comet" - the nickname of the parabolic flight jet used for training astronauts.

We were all issued navy blue jump suits with "G-Force One" patches. We watched a training video that repeatedly drilled into us: Don't Jump, Don't Kick, Don't Swim. During weightlessness, jumping will send you into a neck-crunching collision with the plane's padded ceiling. Kicking is likely to connect painfully with a nearby zeronaut, as we were called. And swimming just doesn't move you anywhere in zero G - it just makes you look silly.

We took shuttles to the small private terminal serving the flight and passed through TSA security just like ordinary, gravity-tethered travelers. Then, like the pioneering spacemen of "The Right Stuff," we strode to our craft - a modified 727 dubbed "G-Force One." We entered via what in a conventional plane would be the rear emergency door. The jet had seven rows of seats in the back. The front 2/3 of the plane was an open area, with thickly-padded walls, floor, and ceiling. No windows, except in the emergency exits.

Illustration: Zero Gravity Corporation

Soon, we were off for a half-hour or so ride to airspace over the Atlantic. A 100-mile-long, 10-mile-wide area, 24,000-32,000 feet in altitude, is dedicated to these parabolic flights. Parabolas are essentially arcs. As the plane flies up the arc at a 45-degree angle, passengers feel increased gravity, about 1.8 times that on earth. But when the plane crests and starts down the arc you get reduced, or zero, gravity for about 30 seconds. To acclimate the passengers on our flight to zero G, the first parabola created the 1/3 Earth gravity environment of Mars. The second and third parabolas created the 1/6 gravity of the moon, and the last 12 were the real deal - weightlessness.

The teachers chatted and laughed excitedly on the flight out, even cheering "Wooo!" and "Yeah!" when the plane dipped unexpectedly. Turbulence on a normal flight might make you nervous. But on this day, it seemed to be just a foretaste of the great adventure to come.

As the time for the first parabola neared, we were told to lie down on the floor and stare at a point on the ceiling to avoid disorientation. The increased gravity wasn't as bad as I thought it would be - it was like a heavy weight pressing on my head and chest. Then a floatmaster cried out "Martian One!" to warn us that the first Mars-gravity episode was approaching, and my body started feeling really light. (On Mars, a 150-pound person would weigh only 50 pounds.) Laughter and shouts of amazement filled the plane. People stood up - some bounding up, despite our "Don't Jump" orders. Thank goodness for the padding. Teachers were dancing like out-of-control marionettes. (Journalists, too.) Some folks did one-handed push-ups – easily! Then, all too quickly, the order "Feet down!" rang out and we had to lie flat again.

The next two parabolas, "Lunar One" and "Lunar Two," made us feel 1/6th lighter than on Earth. You could pick your feet up off the floor and float gently down (unless your out-of-control neighbors were falling or flailing into you.) I, of course, was one of those out-of-control neighbors.

Then, weightlessness. The Zero Gravity Corporation brochures liken the experience to a zen-like, exalted state of bliss. But for the teachers (and journalists) on our flight, I think there was too much fun going on for anyone to experience zen. You had absolutely no control. If you got yourself moving in one direction, you couldn't stop until you hit something. Bodies were bouncing off the walls, floor, ceiling, each other. The first few zero-G parabolas were absolutely hilarious - chaotic, but hilarious. Every face had a broad, silly, marveling grin.

Well, nearly every face. By the end of the flight, a few teachers - I counted eight out of the thirty - had returned to their seats, fighting the effects of motion sickness. I didn't see any evidence that the flight had actually become a "vomit comet," but these folks definitely were not feeling well.

Not a lot of science got done in those first few parabolas. Folks (including Reynolds, our correspondent) flew through the air like Superman. Teachers played catch - using each other as the ball. We tried to eat flying M&M's and drink floating globs of water. But during the last several parabolas the educators did complete at least some of their experiments, which tested Newton's Laws of Motion.

Floating photojournalist Jonathan Schaer

Throughout all of this, my photographer, Jonathan, wrestled with his camera, which was mounted inside a steering wheel-like device to help him maintain its stability. Even when we were supposed to be lying prone, Jonathan remained sitting, and sometimes standing, so he could get the best video he could. And he didn't get sick. Neither did my correspondent, Reynolds, who even photographed his unused airsick bag as proof.

When the floatmasters yelled "Feet down!" during the last parabola, I wanted more. But as we were flying back to Earth, I started feeling a bit of malaise. I then figured that maybe the floatmasters knew what they were doing, stopping at 15 parabolas. (NASA's "Vomit Comet" flies 40 or more per flight.) Others may have felt the same way; the teachers were much quieter on the way back, perhaps reflecting on their Superman leaps and successful experiments - or perhaps just waiting for heads to stop spinning and stomachs to settle.

Even today, the day after, I still feel sort of dragged out and a bit fuzzy-brained. But I would do it all again in a heartbeat. You could do it, too - for a price. The Zero Gravity Corporation makes regular flights out of Kennedy Space Center, Florida, and Las Vegas, Nevada. They cost five thousand dollars a seat.

So, assuming you have a spare $5,000. . .would you have The Right Stuff to do zero G?

Diane Hawkins-Cox, senior producer, CNN Sci-Tech Unit

Filed under: Aviation • NASA • Space • Space Tourism • teachers • zero gravity

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Franko   October 16th, 2008 11:09 am ET

Wall Street had a Ded Whale of a Bounce
Now, a journalist, bouncing off the sky ?

Larian LeQuella   October 16th, 2008 12:51 pm ET

I am glad to see that NG is reaching out to teachers. I know most technology based companies are very concerned about the state of US science education. I look forward to that post.

If I had a spare $5000 just lying about, it would indeed be tempting to go for a spin. But as a pilot myself, I have experienced this phenomenon on a much smaller scale in the KC-135R and C-21A.

scienceguy   October 16th, 2008 1:15 pm ET

Fun ride but poor story. Is it any wonder that we lag behind in the math and sciences in this country when even our science writers fail to understand, or at least convey, the true nature of the phenomena that they are describing. At no time were you weightless or in a zero-g environment. You are simply in freefall in the earth’s gravity field and experience apparent weightlessness. The same goes for any astronaut orbiting earth but it is never described as such. Readers and students alike have no chance of understanding the fundamental physical laws behind the “story” when only a portion of the facts are presented.

S Callahan   October 16th, 2008 2:12 pm ET

Imagine how wonderful the angels feel...

That was so discriptive ..I had to laugh reading it...exciting..makes one want to try this out.....what a great experience....Lucky you! 🙂

Kudos to the photogrpher Johnathan...and buddy Reynolds as well...nice work....

Franko   October 16th, 2008 4:18 pm ET

The sky is falling and hit the Reporter ?
The sky is still; Reporter hit the sky.
Lamp post hit you car?
End is near - and near is end
You can relatively set your watch by that.

Sci Dude   October 16th, 2008 4:36 pm ET

"I was producing a story on how Northrop Grumman is chartering a specially-modified jet to take teachers on zero-gravity plane rides. The idea is to have math and science middle-school teachers conduct experiments during a once-in-a-lifetime weightless flight, and have them take that thrilling experience back to their students, inspiring and motivating a new crop of scientists, astronauts, and engineers."

What a waste of resources. A one-time ride on a special airplane is not going to inspire any students. They'll hear the story once or twice, think "cool," and then go back to whatever they were already doing.

The only recipe for sustained growth in science and engineering is a crop of good jobs, plain and simple. It's a pretty straightforward correlation between (perceived) availability of jobs and the number of people who decide it's worth their time to study science in a sustained way.

An inspiring teacher is only going to affect a student or two at most. You could fly science teachers in "zero G" all day long for the next century and still not make a dent.

Ray G.   October 16th, 2008 8:02 pm ET

Sci Dude, correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought that job prospects are currently quite good for science and engineering students.

Ray G.   October 16th, 2008 9:04 pm ET

Scienceguy, you're no Bill Nye! Weightlessness is a proper term for freefall, whether experienced in an airplane, earth-orbiting spacecraft, or while skydiving. And while NASA likes to use the term microgravity for the environment within the space station, they are still guilty of misapplying physics terminology by saying that an astronaut experiences 2 to 3 Gs when the shuttle decelerates during its descent to earth. And yet despite they're apparent ignorance, they're still capable of navigating robotic spacecraft the solar system.

Franko   October 16th, 2008 10:12 pm ET

"weightless or in a zero-g environment"

Weight is a force, measure by the bathroom scale.
Mass is resistance to acceleration (Weight=Force=Mass*Acceleration)
You weigh less on a scale, at the equator, but you have same mass.

Mass for US is a Slug (kilogram for Europeans)
Hence the Sluggy performance of US science students
Step on a Slug, science is not fun for US

Ray G.   October 17th, 2008 12:07 pm ET

Diane, please provide us an update when the story is about to be aired. Thanks!

scienceguy   October 17th, 2008 1:35 pm ET

Franko, funny enough I happen to work in robotics at NASA. And also funny enough you are not weightless in freefall whether or not it is accepted vernacular. My point was that science writing should tell the true and unambiguous story. Not one that further clouds and issue like "weightlessness" and leads people believe that there are really such things as anti-gravity chambers.

You did get two things right...I am no Bill Nye. I did love his simple explinations of complex things and his style of communication. And – NASA does a terrible job of communicating and teaching the general public. I can't say it is really our job, but to stay viable as an agency (read that: to get funding in the future) I think we need to overhaul that aspect of how we operate.

Franko   October 17th, 2008 4:27 pm ET

" 1 lb force acting on 1 slug mass will give the mass an acceleration of 1 ft/s2"

You could argue everything has weight, (force), everywhere.
Drifting, accelerting, between galaxies, not completerly cncelling
Floating inside aeroplane, sightly differen pull due Earth's gravity field gradient
A difference of pull between your head and toe,
Summing al forces, the weight is a measurable differential.

If you buy Gold, do it at the equator, Sell it at the pole
Same number of molecules, but bankable is this slug of a profit ?

More overwheming still, what weight impanted on US, by the Great Attractor ?

bla   October 18th, 2008 2:49 pm ET

buy a flamingo

Here’s a Few Quick News Items 1.007 « Troythulu’s Rants | musings of a skeptophrenic   October 18th, 2008 8:20 pm ET

[...] October 18, 2008, 20:20 · No Comments First, on, You will believe a journalist can fly, in freefall. [...]

Franko   October 18th, 2008 10:17 pm ET

USA leads the Cartel of the Slug
Followers of the KingKongSlug are Burma and Liberia.

Britain, still traditional, serves beer by the Pint.
Smaller cars, mileage by the Pint, can save a lot.

To become a world leader, USA has to adopt the metric clock
400 degress not 360 ? Reduce shuttle and Mars crashes.

Greg Davis   October 20th, 2008 1:10 pm ET

Well Yeah in a heart beat !! I would go on this great ride. Knowing that NASA was not going to be knocking on my door anytime soon I took up scuba diving. I knew that would be the closest I could get to zero G. I have always had an intrest in space travel I was at the Cape when Apollo 11 lifted off – Boy Scout troop 100 Ocala, Fla I might add. I have told my friends for years "If Nasa calls and has an open seat I'm there" I hope our space program can continue to make advances in space travel I may get to take that flight afterall. Oh by the way does anyone have the Mega Million numbers for this weeks drawing I sure could use an extra $ 5000.00 or hey might even catch a ride with the Russians " Fly me to the moon "

Franko   October 23rd, 2008 12:26 am ET

"Knowing that NASA was not going to be knocking on my door anytime soon "

Grim Reaper, cannot wait for the knock; Knock on the Grim NASA's door

oyinlola Bamigboye   October 29th, 2008 7:30 pm ET

this is good

Adele McMurry   October 30th, 2008 10:13 am ET

I am trying to locate the video clip shown on Yahoo Good Morning America on Oct. 22 (on the internet) on our Zero Gravity Flight. It was the clip with you in it and the grey section of the plane. Is there any chance that you could forward that clip to me so I can have it for teaching? It was a great story and featured our experiment about the accelerometer.

daral   November 24th, 2008 7:42 am ET

Journalist are fly with good news.


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