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weightless flight
The author experiences microgravity on a Zero Gravity airplane flight. (copyright Steve Boxall, courtesy G. Cecil)

My ZeroG adventure

A few months ago I was selected as one of 75 scientists, engineers, and technicians to take a new course in microgravity. This course was created with a grant from the Florida Job Authority and taught by SpaceTEC to help aerospace workers understand the microgravity environment and to give us extra training to help us obtain new employment once the shuttle program ends in 2010. We spent two weeks in class learning about microgravity, or more commonly known as “zero gravity”. This course included a flight with ZeroG, so we got to float like an astronaut in microgravity. This plane does parabolas like NASA’s infamous “Vomit Comet”. No, I did not even get queasy.

It’s nothing like I’ve ever experienced before. I’ve jumped off things, jumped out of planes 4,600 meters (15,000 feet) up, swam underwater, rode rollercoasters, and more, but nothing I’ve experienced can come close to describe what it’s like to float in microgravity. It was a once in a lifetime experience.

At one time I got trapped in the middle of the plane. I couldn’t reach the walls or ceiling or floor. All I could do was float and flail around in vain. It was pretty funny. One other time, someone just barely tapped my foot sending me into a slow cartwheel unable to stop. Many other times I felt like a pinball in a pinball game. I would try to float gently and would get bumped by someone and go off in all kinds of different directions ricocheting off other people and walls.

I’ve jumped off things, jumped out of planes 4,600 meters up, swam underwater, rode rollercoasters, and more, but nothing I’ve experienced can come close to describe what it’s like to float in microgravity.

Besides having fun floating, we had three experiments to do during our flight. One was to toss around a toy spaceship exploring the action/reaction phenomenon described in Newton’s Laws of Gravity. Our next experiment was to observe what less dense liquids do inside a bottle with more dense liquids during microgravity. We used oil and water in the bottle. The less dense liquid would eventually go to the middle of the bottle. Our last experiment was to open an actual International Space Station medical kit, put on gloves, and bandage an imaginary cut on a patient’s arm. Sounds easy, eh? Well, it isn’t. As I was putting on the gloves, I kept tumbling round and round. I got as far as wiping the fake wound with alcohol before we ran out of time.

Microgravity would last for about 30 seconds and then gravity would suddenly return. The coaches would warn us to get our feet pointed down, but many times you couldn’t do it in time. That’s when you would be on the ceiling weighing nothing and then a microsecond later you weigh 110 kilograms (245 lbs) and plummet to the floor in a heap. Gravity would grab us fat boys with a vengeance. I hit the floor pretty hard at times. We would then start to climb the parabola again and I would end up lying there weighing 1.8 times my weight (200 kg, 441 lbs) until the next episode of microgravity. The next day I was pretty sore but I bore it with pride.

This was the nearest I’ll ever get to being an astronaut. I can now cross this experience off my “bucket list”. As our primary instructor Bob Ward liked to say, “Onward, upward, downward, repeat…”


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