Gravity Sucks!

Our Intrepid Reporter Takes Up Space on G-Force One

Our Intrepid Reporter Takes Up Space on G-Force One

By Buzz McClain

G-Force One
Courtesy of Zero Gravity Corporation

The roaring engines of the Boeing 727 suddenly grow quiet and the plane’s perceptible change in momentum causes a collective gasp by the passengers throughout the cabin.

The engines have clearly shut back, significantly.

Oddly, the gasp in the cabin turns into a giggle, then a laugh, then outright screaming as the plane’s gravity fails and the passengers find themselves floating in the fuselage.

As no one is buckled in—we were, in fact, lying unbridled and supine on the floor—we drift up and across the cabin, some of us tumbling, a few of us spinning, but all of us laughing hysterically with manic expressions as if the cabin’s oxygen suddenly had been replaced by nitrous oxide.

The idea that if the plane continued on this trajectory for much longer we’d be leading the evening news but not in a good way never occurs to us, and before long—30 seconds, in fact—a flight attendant with a megaphone shouts, “Feet down, we’re coming out!”

At which point we all cry “Awwww,” like tots with their toys taken.

We flatten back out on the floor. But after a few minutes of climbing, to our universal delight, the plane seems to be stalling again, and again we rise from the floor, hovering to where the overhead luggage compartments would be in a normal jet, but this is G-Force One, which is definitely not a normal jet. For one thing, in G-Force One, you can crawl across the floor, up the wall, across the ceiling and down the other wall, Spider-Man-like, and live to talk about it. As I did.

And talk about it you do. So much so, that I’ve promised that once this is published, I’m never, ever going to start a conversation again with, “Did I tell you about my weightless flight?”—especially with startled strangers on the street—because that’s all I’ve been doing since I my flight aboard G-Force One.

Buzz McClain
Courtesy of Zero Gravity Corporation

His Head in the Stars
Eric Anderson suggests that zero- gravity flights are “a gateway experience,” not unlike a drug, and that the sensation may be addictive. I cagily guided him into this provocative figure of speech, but the co-founder, president and CEO of Space Adventures, Ltd.-ZERO-G Corporation, the Tysons-based company that owns G-Force One, willingly went along for my metaphorical ride.

I was wondering if, based on my compulsion to want to be weightless again, if it was somehow addictive?

“I think it is,” he says cheerfully in the 10th-story conference room of Space Adventures’ Towers Crescent suite. “It’s something that briefly changes your physiology, your cells—everything sort of floats. It’s a drug, a perfectly-legal-won’t-harm-you drug. I don’t know if technically that’s right, but during the time you’re weightless your body is under different forces.”

The suggestion that zero gravity is a “gateway experience” is his own expression—it’s on the training video you watch before your flight. Apparently, weightless flights are just the beginning.

“You’ve got zero-g flights,” he says, “and we’re working on future suborbital flights where you’ll get into a rocket and go up 100 kilometers and come back down—a 20-minute flight. And we also sell flights to the international space station—that space station,” he says pointing to a poster-sized photo of the familiar orbiting laboratory. “Those go for tens of millions of dollars. Close to $50 million for two weeks in space. It’s an incredible experience and most people have said if they had the money they’d do it.”

Anderson, 35, would, in a sparrow’s heartbeat. It’s been his goal all along. He’s an aerospace engineer who started the company with the unhidden agenda of going into space himself (he hasn’t, not yet). But he and I are among the “no more than 10,000 to 20,000 people who have experienced weightlessness,” he estimates. “It’s a very exclusive club.” He’s done it “probably a dozen times” himself, three or four times a year, a statement that makes me jones a little bit for another flight.

But I’m not going again anytime soon, not when it costs between $5,000 and $6,000 a flight, depending on the package. “It’s not a bad deal,” Anderson offers, and I’ve confirmed with various executives in aviation who confirm that given the massive overhead for such an operation, that the price is right.

Someday weightless flights will be less extravagant and more commonplace, and when that happens, Anderson has a few ideas to keep things interesting: “We’ve talked about doing things like a sports league,” he says. “Zero-gravity soccer. Zero-gravity dancing. Fashion shows.”

Fashion shows?

The Gravity of the Situation
The 30 passengers, a third of them women, for today’s Zero-G flight meet in a conference room at the Dulles Hyatt where we snack on “flight-friendly” fruit and pastries—no eggs, sausage or biscuits and gravy for us, for obvious reasons, although I’m starving for something more than a few slices of melon. Maybe there will be the usual boxed snacks on the plane?

We’re each given a nifty fabric backpack with our flight suits and our color-coded G-Force socks; there are three colors, and today I’m on the blue socks team. As we find out later, the “floating lounge” of the plane is divided into large color-coded rectangles so we don’t go bouncing into each other too much once gravity has been eliminated.

Today’s flight has passengers, including two teenage boys, from the immediate area as well as Australia, Spain, Japan, England, Chicago, California, Delaware and Tennessee. They are executives, doctors, scientists, teachers, students and retirees, and many of them are here as birthday gifts from others or to themselves.

I go to the men’s room and zip myself into the dark blue flight suit. I turn up the collar, rakish-like, and strike a pose in the mirror. The transformation begins now, from passive passenger to anxious adventurer eager to find out what it’s like to break the binds of my planet’s restrictive mass. Gravity is the enemy. I notice my nametag is on upside down and it’s not a mistake. By tradition, once you’ve been weightless you get to flip it over.

We meet our in-flight coaches—ours is a young man from Montana named Travis—and we giddily watch a 30-minute training video that explains how we’ll experience weightlessness for a total of seven minutes, 30 seconds at a time, as the plane jets across 100 miles of dedicated airspace over the ocean off New Jersey in a sequence of parabolas.

What happens is this: We will climb 32,000 feet at a 45-degree angle; at the top of the arc, the pilot will put the engines in neutral and, for 30 seconds, we can chase lazily floating M&Ms as we barrel roll in mid-air in the padded fuselage. Of course, the plane is falling, sort of, and eventually gravity returns to the cabin. That’s when we’ll get the “feet down” command, having to flatten out on the floor—gravity comes back suddenly, and with a vengeance. If you’re hanging out on the ceiling, you’ll quickly be face down on the floor.

We’re led to Hyatt buses that will take us to the Signature-Dulles executive runway, and as we board the vehicles we’re greeted by—yes—TSA screeners! With metal-detecting wands! You can’t get away from the TSA, which I suppose is ultimately a good thing, and at least I didn’t have to take off my shoes.

After having our dramatic pose-with-the-plane photos taken on the tarmac, we enter the jet through a metal staircase in the rear, where the faint smell of jet fuel makes me feel even more like a presumptive astronaut. Yeah, I’m ready for this, but I stuff an offered barf bag in my pocket and dab some MotionEaze behind each ear just in case (in fact, most of the passengers do).

After flying what feels like the equivalent of a commuter flight to Baltimore we’re taken to our teams’ respective rectangles in the floating lounge. Now the giddiness turns to serious mirth as we lie on our backs and get ready for . . . what? The mystery is the thrill. The first parabola will take us to one-third weightlessness—what we’d weigh on Mars. And here it comes! I go from flattened to floating and I roll over a few inches off the floor and do the recommended one-finger pushup; it’s eerie, and brief, and soon I’m flattened again.

The next two parabolas will take us to “lunar gravity,” or one-sixth normal, and the pushups take us several feet off the padded mat. It’s eerie too, and pretty cool, but the best is yet to come: zero gravity.

Twelve times the plane goes up and down, and 12 times we laugh through our screams and shouts as we flip and roll and fly with people over and under us. The coaches encourage us to perform some choreographed crowd-pleasers, like locking arms and flipping backward or flattening out face down in a line and pushing forward in “Superman” flight poses.

What must this look like to anyone seeing it through the few windows?

Two things you don’t know about weightlessness until you do it: Catching flying M&Ms in your mouth is harder than you think; they go up and you go down, or vice versa. And when Travis tosses some big bubble-globs of water to swallow, all the water you don’t get hangs in the air over you until—“Feet down, we’re coming out”—and, splat, right in your face.

It’s a good thing they’re shooting high-definition video and taking photographs, because when it’s over, it’s all a blur. And as we fly back to Dulles, I still feel as if I just jumped a little bit right now, I would ease upward.


Have I Told You I Was Weightless?
Days later my thoughts frequently return to the weightless experience. I’m not alone.

“I’m still talking about it too,” says flightmate David Faeder, managing partner of Fountain Square Properties in Reston Town Center. “It really excites me to think of the space travel breakthroughs that are coming in our lifetime; to have been a part of the early stages of the growth is just so fortunate.

“I keep thinking of the very limited number of people who have experienced total weightlessness—and we were able to experience it! If memories are made up of highlights of great experiences, this will remain among my most unique.”

That, plus, “One-finger pushups are a lot easier when you’re weightless.”

And with that, I’m done talking about it.

Getting a Feel for Weightlessness

So what’s weightlessness like?

You spend your life in one-g and your brain gets used to it; when you get to zero-g, it takes time to get over the sensation of falling—at first you try to break your “fall” only to realize you’re actually going up with your hands down. You do a mid-air horizontal spin with your hands and feet stretched out, and it dawns on you that you don’t feel anything along the bottom of your body, and you brace for an impact that never comes.

There’s panic and peace in the same 30-second parabola.

“It’s different things to different people,” says Eric Anderson, who has been on about a dozen flights. “It’s exhilarating, it’s light, it’s funny, it’s kind of spiritual, but at the same time, it’s adrenaline. It’s all those things. It almost grabs you—in a weird way, it’s almost [counter intuitive] that you are totally free, but actually the feeling of weightlessness grabs a hold of you.”

“For me, it was sensory overload,” says Michael Stoltzfus, president and CEO of Dynamic Aviation in Bridgewater, near Harrisonburg. “I don’t recall ever having that much sensory overload. The first three or four zero-gravity parabolas were the ones that were overwhelming. It was really surreal.”

And this comes from someone who leases jets and has flown everything from recreational J3 Piper Cubs to commercial DC-9s as a pilot.

“My lasting impression was, I wish I could figure out how to do it more,” he says.

What happens is this: We will climb 32,000 feet at a 45-degree angle; at the top of the arc, the pilot will put the engines in neutral and, for 30 seconds, we can chase lazily floating M&Ms as we barrel roll in mid-air in the padded fuselage. Of course, the plane is falling, sort of, and eventually gravity returns to the cabin. That’s when we’ll get the “feet down” command, having to flatten out on the floor—gravity comes back suddenly, and with a vengeance. If you’re hanging out on the ceiling, you’ll quickly be face down on the floor.

(January 2011)