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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April 22, 2008

Moscow, we have a problem...

Posted: 04:37 PM ET

Actually, neither Soyuz commander Yuri Malenchenko nor Expedition 16 Commander Peggy Whitson uttered those words as their spacecraft plunged through the atmosphere toward a rougher-than-expected landing in Kazakhstan last weekend.

Expedition 16 Commander Peggy Whitson arrives at Chkalovsky airport, Star City along with Flight Engineer and Soyuz Commander Yuri Malenchenko and South Korean space tourist So-yeon Yi. They returned to Earth on April 19, 2008 to complete 192 days in space for Whitson and Malenchenko and 11 days in orbit for Yi. Source: NASA/Bill Ingalls

But details are beginning to trickle out suggesting they DID have several problems, though exactly what went wrong and how serious it was is still unclear. NASA Associate Administrator for Space Operations Bill Gerstenmaier held a teleconference with reporters Tuesday afternoon to share what he does know about the incident.

Malenchenko, Whitson and South Korean space tourist So-yeon Yi were returning to Earth from the International Space Station on Saturday when some sort of malfunction triggered a so-called "ballistic" re-entry scenario. The spacecraft re-entered at a much steeper angle than planned, bringing it down a couple hundred miles short of its target landing zone near the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The crew members inside were subjected to far more extreme G forces than normal during the drop through the atmosphere – approximately eight 8 G's for up to two minutes. There were Russian media reports of 10.5 to 11 G's at peak, but Gerstenmaier was unable to confirm that.

There is some evidence to suggest that one or more pyrotechnic bolts that hold the crew cabin to the instrumentation/propulsion section didn't "blow" as designed at the appropriate point in the descent. Those two sections need to separate so that the crew cabin's heat shield is properly oriented during the hottest, most fiery parts of atmospheric reentry. Crew members reported abnormal levels of buffeting and jostling during decent, and there are anecdotal reports by people who saw the spacecraft on the ground that it was more singed than usual. The hypothetical worst case scenario in this case would be that the unshielded parts of the Soyuz would be exposed to searing hot temperatures for too long and they could burn through. This obviously didn't happen, and there is no evidence so far to suggest it was even close. But after a breached heat shield brought down the shuttle Columbia back in 2003, NASA is very aware of the potential for disaster.

Yuri Malenchenko smelled smoke in the cockpit near the end of the flight, shortly after the parachutes deployed. He switched off the display panel for a time, and the burning smell went away.

Russian mission control was out of contact with the spacecraft for a significant period of time, and communications were not reestablished until after the crew climbed out of the downed spacecraft and Malenchenko called in on a satellite phone. There is more anecdotal evidence suggesting the communications antenna burned off during the descent, though Gerstenmaier was keeping an open mind as to whether or not there could be other explanations for the loss of comm.

And making the whole situation even more worrisome: this is the second time in a row that some of these anomalies have happened. The ballistic reentry and the crew cabin separation problem both occurred last fall when the Expedition 15 cosmonauts returned to Earth. An investigation fingered a shorted out cable as the culprit in the ballistic reentry. Malenchenko and Whitson inspected that cable in their Soyuz prior to deorbiting, and it appeared fine.

ROSCOSMOS, the Russian space agency, is appointing a commission to investigate what when wrong with this latest landing, and how it relates it to the Expedition 15 malfunctions. Gerstenmaier says NASA has full confidence that the Russians grasp the seriousness of getting to the root cause of what's going on.

But this is clearly another headache for the folks at NASA, who will be relying on the Soyuz to ferry crews to and from the International Space Station for years to come, especially after the space shuttle fleet is retired at the end of 2010.

The next astronaut slated to fly aboard a Soyuz is Expedition 18 Commander Mike Fincke, in the fall of this year. NASA hopes to hear the results of the Russian investigation in a few months, and decide by August or September if the problem has been diagnosed and fixed.

–Kate Tobin, Sr. Producer, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: International Space Station • NASA • Space • Space Tourism

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April 8, 2008

New station crew and a space tourist rocket into orbit

Posted: 10:23 AM ET

A new space station crew blasted into space through clear blue skies today from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The Soyuz spacecraft carried Expedition 17 crew members Sergei Volkov, who will be the new station Commander, and Flight Engineer Oleg Kononenko. They were joined by South Korean space tourist So-yeon Yi, who at age 29 is the youngest woman ever to fly in space. Volkov is the son of veteran cosmonaut Alexander Volkov.

Source: NASA TV

Unlike NASA, Roscosmos, the Russian Space Agency, provides live TV pictures of the crew in the cockpit during the ascent into space. So-yeon Yi could be seen with a broad smile on her face, repeatedly giving the "thumbs-up" sign to the camera.

Once in space, it takes the Soyuz a couple of days to "catch up" to the International Space Station, so docking will not happen until Thursday.

Meanwhile, Expedition 16 crew members Peggy Whitson and Yuri Malenchenko are preparing to wrap up their six-month tour of duty and will return to Earth with So-yeon Yi in the Soyuz on April 19. Expedition 16 Flight Engineer Garrett Reisman will remain in orbit and become part of the Expedition 17 crew. Commander Whitson was the first female station Commander and oversaw one of the busiest periods to date in space station assembly.

The Expedition 17 crew is expecting visitors in early June when astronauts aboard the space shuttle Discovery come calling to deliver and install another piece of the Japanese Kibo Module to the station. After that, things will quiet down for a while in terms of station assembly, while the shuttle program turns its attention to flying the final Hubble servicing mission, currently targeted for October.

–Kate Tobin, Senior Producer, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: International Space Station • NASA • Space • Space Tourism

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March 27, 2008

Enter the Lynx

Posted: 04:07 PM ET

Prospects for blasting off on a suborbital "vacation" to space got a bit brighter this week when XCOR Aerospace debuted designs for the "Lynx."

Source: XCOR Aerospace

The two seat space plane is designed to carry a paying tourist just past the edge of space - where you would be able to see the stars against the blackness of space and the "blue marble" of the Earth below. About the size of a private airplane, the Lynx would fly to an altitude of about 200,000 feet. The "tourist" could expect to experience about 90 seconds of weightlessness, though he or she would remain strapped into the passenger seat the whole time.

XCOR plan to begin flights in 2010, and tickets will run about $100,000 dollars.

If all goes as planned, the Lynx will go head to head for passengers with Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, which is being designed and built by aviation guru and Ansari X Prize winner Burt Rutan. That space plane is designed to carry up to six people, and is supposed to start test flights this year. That ticket will set you back about $200,000, but during those precious few seconds of microgravity you would get to unstrap and float around in the back.

Entrepreneurs have been touting space tourism as the "next big thing" for some time now, estimating the market to be in the half-billion dollar range. And while a $100,000 or $200,000 thousand dollar ticket is hopelessly out of the ballpark for the masses, it could be workable for a sizable number of rich folks who view it as a "once-in-a-lifetime" trip - comparable to climbing Mt. Everest.

So far the Lynx is still on the drawing board. We'll keep you posted on the progress.

–Kate Tobin, Senior Producer, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: Space • Space Tourism

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