Playing astronaut. Image: Al Powers
United States of America

Weightless in Seattle

Words Mark Harris

February 2016 from issue 39

Tags: adrenaline, unusual experience, usa

Weightless in Seattle

High above the Space Needle, Mark Harris swoops and soars weightless inside a custom zero-g aeroplane, living out his childhood dreams of being an astronaut.

Luke Skywalker may have been a little short for a Stormtrooper but I have always been a little tall (and much too short-sighted) for an astronaut. Yet here I am, floating and tumbling midair in the very plane NASA uses to train men and women destined for outer space. I snap at a bubble of water floating in front of me and marvel at the sensation of utter weightlessness.

Although there are both rocket scientists and billionaire space tourists on board, I am neither. I’m just a boy with stars in his eyes, grown into a man who still occasionally dreams of diamonds set in a pitch-black void and the moon rising behind a curving Earth.

Space agencies have long used zero-g flights to simulate the microgravity of orbit without the danger and expense of a rocket launch. A jet flies steeply upwards, rising three kilometres in 30 seconds. The pilot then carefully steers the plane into an arc – or parabola – like that of a thrown ball. If they get it just right, everyone and everything inside the plane becomes completely weightless for 30 seconds, before the pilot pulls the nose up again.

On our specially modified Boeing 727 flying high above Seattle, Captain John Benisch II gets it right time after time. All but the rear 40 seats have been stripped out of the commercial jet, leaving a long, empty tube padded on every surface. My heart has been racing ever since I signed up – for less than the cost of flying business class from Sydney to LA. I’ve watched videos, read books and even signed a waiver absolving the Zero Gravity Corporation of any responsibility for “injury or illness caused by physical contact with floating objects”. But as I lie on the floor awaiting our first parabola, I realise nothing on earth can truly prepare me for the absence of something I’ve felt unnoticed for every second of my life: gravity.

“Prepare for zero-one,” says Captain Benisch, and suddenly, miraculously, I’m up and floating. It’s like scuba diving without the gear, hang-gliding without any fear of impact or, for this rapidly regressing flier, the realisation of a thousand childhood fantasies. The first parabola is over almost before I even realise it – my weight returning with a vengeance, the plane pushing me to the floor with twice the force of gravity as we line up for another.

On the zero-two and zero-three parabolas, I experiment with slow-motion somersaults. All of my fellow passengers are wearing the same flight suit and the same moonrise-wide grin. Two words fill the air: “sorry” as we inevitably tumble into one another and “awesome” as each parabola ends (yes, the majority are American).

As we fly parabola after parabola, my confidence rises. I dart after flying M&Ms, hover in a suspended raincloud of water droplets and spin through the air like Superman. As this isn’t an extreme NASA ‘vomit comet’ training mission, with 50 parabolas in roller-coaster succession, we level out after 12 and start our descent. Even so, by the time we touch down, ecstatic, exhausted and exhilarated, my stomach is roiling. My boyhood dreams have come true but my adult self realises that perhaps I never really had what it takes to be a spaceman.

Get Informed

Zero-G’s jet takes off from airports across the USA, including Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Austin and Miami. Flights cost about US$5200 per person.
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