Our flight from Las Vegas began like any other, buckled into a seat for takeoff and climbing into the sky above the desert to an altitude of 32,000 feet. It was there that our plane leveled off, but our adrenaline levels continued to rise.
We unfastened our seat belts, removed our shoes and walked to a 70-foot-long section of the modified 727 that had no windows, seats or overhead bins. We separated into three teams, each with a coach, and sat on the soft, padded floor for instructions.
A few minutes later, laying flat on our backs in our blue flight suits, we began an experience that is simply unlike anything on Earth.
Today, I'd like to tell you about a trip I took recently on G Force One, the plane operated by Zero Gravity Corporation (Zero G) that simulates weightlessness. The plane provides the same experience that NASA and the Russian Space Agency have used for four decades to train astronauts for the weightlessness of space.
Zero G is the only company in the world that offers such flights to the general public. You may have seen the company on TV -- recent segments of Good Morning America, The Apprentice, Martha Stewart and The Biggest Loser were filmed on board.
We're always looking for great new travel companies to represent, so last month I gathered the top executives at Vacations To Go and our sister company, Vacation Publications, and headed to Las Vegas to see firsthand if the weightless experience lived up to the hype. On that subject, let me just say that my jaw still hits the floor when I think about it.
NASA and Zero G simulate weightlessness with something that is called parabolic flight, a series of relatively steep climbs and descents. The ascents are steep enough to create 1.8 g's, meaning everyone and everything in the plane weighs almost twice as much as on the ground.
The descents are precise maneuvers that are varied to simulate Martian gravity (one third that of Earth), lunar gravity (one sixth that of Earth) and weightlessness.
As we went over the top of our first parabola, flat on our backs, we entered our Martian-gravity stage, a period lasting about 30 seconds during which we all weighed approximately one third what we do on the ground. A 150-pound person weighs 50 pounds. We rolled over on our stomachs to try the easiest push-ups of our lives before standing and hopping around with huge silly grins on our faces.
"Feet down," came the call, relayed though the plane, our cue to return to the prone position as the plane pulled up, into the high-g ascent portion of the parabola. For another 30 seconds or so, we felt heavy, and lifting an arm or a leg off the floor was surprisingly difficult.
"Lunar one" rang out from the coaches, signaling the first of two lunar-gravity parabolas. In this stage, a 150-pound person weighs 25 pounds. We rose from the mat carefully this time, pre-warned that a jump might carry us into the roof of the plane. In this gravity, it was easy to push off the ground with your hands or feet, floating slowly back to the mat.
I remember the films of the Apollo astronauts skipping across the moon. With each step, they were suspended above the lunar surface far too long, as if the film was running in slow motion. We stood and jumped and hung in the air in much the same way.
Another "feet down" alert was followed by a high-g ascent and a second lunar-gravity parabola. During every ascent stage, we pulled 1.8 g's, which meant that a 150-pound person weighed 270 pounds. Some of us tried push-ups again, in the heavy state, for the fun of it. They were difficult but doable.
After the three reduced-gravity parabolas, our early apprehension had turned to sheer joy and anticipation over the zero-gravity parabolas to come. What would absolute weightlessness feel like? We did not have to wait long to find out.
The plane crested the top of the parabola and entered a new angle of descent, and the weight of our bodies just melted away. We did not need to be told we were weightless -- it was obvious when we floated off the mat.
We were warned in our pre-flight training not to put the usual effort into jumping in this state, as we would hurl ourselves into the ceiling or a wall or a fellow passenger at a dangerous speed.
We were also warned that some people instinctively kick the air or flail their arms in a swimming motion in order to move. This is discouraged since it doesn't work anyway -- there is no water to push against -- and a "swimmer" might accidentally hit or kick someone floating by.
None of those things happened in our flight. It was peaceful in a way that is hard for me to describe -- a feeling of total freedom.
During the 12 zero-g parabolas, several in our group tucked their legs to their chests and were tossed back and forth in mid-air. It was effortless.
We chased down and swallowed M&Ms and big round drops of water as they floated by, courtesy of our coaches. We flew through the air with a gentle push-off from the mat, walls or ceiling, and did somersaults without touching the ground. Every parabola was a new experiment, a new adventure.
In all, we spent as much time in a weightless state as Alan Shepard experienced on America's first space flight -- and the poor guy was strapped to his seat the entire time.
It's important to note that inside the plane, with no windows to provide visual cues as to which way the plane is pointing and no wind rushing by as a skydiver would experience, these ups and downs are remarkably smooth and peaceful. I had no feeling of falling or diving, no roller-coaster-like sensations at all. Going weightless is just an incredible, exhilarating feeling.
At the end of Zero 12, our 15th parabola overall, there was a collective groan throughout the entire plane as we realized we were done.
We returned to the airport and to Zero G's headquarters for a "regravitation" party, including a champagne toast, light meal, framed group picture and a T-shirt. We promised each other we'd meet in zero gravity again someday.
How safe is Zero G? The company has successfully flown more than 4,000 passengers on more than 180 flights in four years and was recently hired by NASA to conduct weightless training for astronauts, in the same plane. This is the first time a private company has ever operated such flights for NASA, which has simulated weightlessness in its own, smaller aircraft for nearly 50 years without an accident.
And the price? Not cheap, except in comparison to the experience itself.
A ticket on Zero G costs $3,950 plus tax, per person, regardless of departure location, and includes the flight, training, a pre-flight snack, post-flight re-gravitation party with champagne toast and light meal, flight suit, duffel and DVD of the flight. Flights to the departure city and hotel are additional.
Zero G has scheduled departures from Las Vegas, Nevada, the Kennedy Space Center near Orlando, Florida, and San Jose, California. The entire plane can be chartered and flown to any airport that accommodates a 727, for corporate team-building, incentives, etc.
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