Not many of life’s great adventures begin in a hotel function room, the kind with putty-colored walls. I walk into the Flamingo Room of the Renaissance Hotel just east of Fort Lauderdale to find rows of straight-backed chairs, each with a blue tote bag on the seat, each tote bag with a name tag clipped to it.
This is looking less like the ride of a lifetime and more like a corporate retreat.
As people drift in, a staff member—Terese Brewster, the CEO of this outfit—calls out, “Please find the tote bag with your name on it. You’ll find a flight suit inside. We need everyone to put on their flight suits.”
I’m not big on adventures that require me to change my clothes, especially so I look just like everyone else. I lean over and under my breath ask Brewster, “Why do we need to put on flight suits?”
She gives me a sidelong glance. Maybe I’m going to be trouble. “Because,” she says, “flight suits are fun.”
When I get back from the men’s room, zipped into my flight suit, I stand in front of the mirror on one of the walls of the meeting room. You know what navy blue flight suits do? They make everyone look like Tom Cruise.
Ma’am, zipped up and squared away, ma’am.
It doesn’t hurt that this morning, three actual pilots are chatting their way reassuringly through the crowd, all wearing the same getup that we are.
The name tags of the newcomers are upside down. That’s significant. By longstanding tradition, American astronauts wear their name tags upside down until they’ve floated in space and returned the first time.
That’s what we’re getting ready to do: not go to space, but float. We need all the zippered pockets on the legs and sleeves of our flight suits because we’re going into zero gravity, and if you insist on taking along a pen or a wallet or your iPhone, they don’t want it going airborne and conking someone on the head.
I’d already given Brewster a moment of quiet, on the phone, talking about the challenges of taking a reporter to zero gravity.
“I’m wondering what the experience of trying to take notes in zero-g is going to be like,” I say.
Silence. “Not good,” Brewster says. “It’s hard to write in zero g.”
“Wait,” I say, “I take notes on everything. I’m taking notes right now. I just wrote, ‘Not good. It’s hard to write in zero g.'”
This doesn’t impress her. “It’s not going to work very well during the zero-g segments,” she says. “And on the high-gs, we recommend you not move your head at all.”
A couple of hours later, we’ll be on an aging Boeing 727 nicknamed G-Force One, 39,000 feet above the Gulf of Mexico, flying a series of hills and valleys through the air to achieve zero gravity at the top, then pulling two-gs coming out of the zero-g at the bottom. If you move your head too much in the two-g stretches, you end up space sick. They call it the vomit comet for a reason.
No notes in zero g. No notes in two g.
It’s a measure of how ridiculously naive I am about what I’m about to do that I think, How lame. She wants me to wait to take notes on being weightless until I’m not weightless anymore? We’ll see about that.
As part of the reporting for a book I’m doing on the race to the Moon in the 1960s, I decided I needed to understand what those first astronauts experienced when they rocketed free of gravity. In 55 years of going to space, we haven’t sent a single reporter. Not many people who have gone to zero gravity have come back to tell the tale. Weightlessness hasn’t inspired nearly as much writing as fly-fishing.
But as interest in space tourism and the emerging space economy has grown in the last several years (as I wrote about recently), now any tourist with $5,000 is welcome to book a flight on Zero Gravity Corp.’s G-Force One. In the United States, Zero Gravity has largely taken over the training and research flights NASA used to do itself. (I took both a tourist and a scientific research flight.) Worldwide, G-Force One is one of only three planes making regular zero-gravity flights.
The inside of G-Force One is bare: no overhead bins, no consoles with lights or a/c vents, no soundproofing. There are just seven rows of seats all the way at the rear, then 66 feet of wide-open fuselage. The entire interior beyond the seats is layered with thick white mats—floor, walls, ceiling. This is the float zone.
Zero-gravity flights using airplanes have been going on since the mid-1950s, the dawn of space travel. They come with an important caveat. On G-Force-One, you never leave the planet, so of course you never leave gravity behind. G-Force One remains firmly attached to Earth. The crew and passengers remain firmly inside G-Force One, and we, too, are all fastened to Earth.
That’s also true of the astronauts on the space station. They’re all floating, of course, but the station is firmly in Earth’s gravitational grip, just like the 2,000 satellites currently in orbit, just like the Moon. That’s what it means to be in orbit.
What G-Force One does is use acrobatic flying to slip loose from gravity for a few moments, achieving high-speed free-fall. The sealed plane rockets into the sky at 45 degrees, an incredibly steep angle for a passenger jet, then comes over the top of its four-mile-high climb, and starts to streak down the other side of the hill. During those moments when the plane noses over the top of the arc, the force of gravity is perfectly counterbalanced by the plane’s course and speed toward Earth. The plane literally falls out of the way of its occupants at exactly the same rate that its passengers would be falling to Earth. For those moments, gravity is erased, and everyone inside is weightless. The zero-g hills follow the curve of a parabola, and that’s what each loop is called: a parabola.
That weightlessness lasts about 27 seconds. Scientists call it microgravity, because it’s never quite zero gravity. But this isn’t some fakery. It’s the same weightlessness you’d be in if you were 100 days out of Kennedy Space Center, streaking for Mars.
Indeed, weightlessness on the International Space Station works the same way. ISS is in free-fall around Earth. The force of Earth’s gravity pulling on ISS is perfectly balanced by the station’s orbital velocity. The gangly 100-yard-long station streaks through space at 10 times the speed of a bullet leaving a gun. ISS is falling, but falling in a circle, around Earth.
On tourist flights, Zero Gravity flies 15 parabolas for its passengers. They ease you in: The first parabola mimics Martian gravity, which is one-third of Earth’s gravity. The next two are lunar gravity, what we saw the astronauts bouncing along in, one-sixth of Earth.
Those first three are a little confusing. You’re not stuck to the floor of the plane, but you’re not floating, either. The 27 seconds flashes by, with Zero Gravity staff urging you to try push-ups. It’s hard to get the second push-up done, because you’ve push-upped yourself into the middle of the fuselage.
Then comes the loop they call out as “Zero One!”
My whole body drifts up slowly from the floor mats.
My instinct is to try to get some traction, to swim or grab something. But moving my arms and legs does nothing except make me feel silly. For just a moment, it’s the oddest sensation: There’s no force on me at all. It’s like someone told me to relax, and I did. Relaxation as a physical feeling, from the outside and the inside at the same time.
I’m sure I have that zero-g first-timer’s expression on my face — eyebrows up, eyes open, half-smile, with that look that says, “Whoa! What is happening here?”
Before I can get my bearings—where is my body? Where are the mats? Where are my fellow travelers? Which pocket is my notebook in?—one of the Zero G staff calls out, “Feet down! Coming out!”
Before we took off, Brewster warned us to take this announcement seriously. Because of the arc of the parabolas, we come out of zero-g right into two-g: You go from weighing nothing to weighing twice what you normally do. You don’t want to be caught drifting up near the ceiling, only to come slamming down onto your neck or ankle with twice your weight.
The next two parabolas are much the same. I’m so busy trying to analyze weightlessness and get something out of it that it’s over before I know it.
Those first few loops remind me of something very clearly: what it’s like to ice skate when you don’t know how. I grew up in Miami, so I didn’t have much ice-skating experience. I remember vividly finding my balance on skates, and zooming across the ice at Polar Palace, thinking, This is exactly what this is supposed to be like . . . but it’s an accident and I am totally out of control, Whoa! Crash!
Around loop four, I start out on my stomach instead of my back. I close my eyes. As we crown the top of the hill, I can feel gravity let go of my body, a ripple of release passing through me from the front of my body up through my back. I open my eyes, and I’m a foot off the floor, stretched out like Superman. I turn my head to see what everyone else is doing, and I pull myself into a sitting position. That motion sends me straight for the ceiling, but I brace myself and bounce off the ceiling into the middle of the plane.
Someone drifts my way, and I redirect him with a single finger. It’s at that moment that I realize what all our motions feel like. We’re like helium balloons, like the parade floats in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. We are lighter than air, but we still have mass. Once I see other people as parade floats, I realize that’s what I am, too. I’m just like Bullwinkle, without the guy-ropes.
During the last five parabolas, the Zero Gravity staff open a bag of Skittles and float them around the cabin for us to try to catch in our mouths. They do the same with globules of water. I try a couple Skittles and a couple spheres of water, fail utterly, and decide not to waste precious seconds in weightlessness on tricks (the glistening, morphing spheres of water are amazing as they float by, as if they were created by special effects masters).
I learn to navigate the cabin.
I lie on my back during 2G and try to lift a leg. I’m not quite as strong as I think I am.
On the last few loops, I stand straight up during the 2G periods—not to resist gravity. It’s not hard to stand motionless in 2G. What I want to feel is the opposite, that strange sense of freedom as we slip into zero-g, traveling up from the soles of my feet to the top of my head. For the briefest of moments, my feet, knees and hips are in zero g, while my torso, shoulders, and head are still in gravity. That sense of release, of being liberated from all force, is palpable. It’s like your whole body has been mummified in a tight bundle, and zero-g unzips the wraps from bottom to top.
John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962—and the first to experience an extended period of weightlessness—talked about it so much during his official NASA debriefing that at his post-flight press conference, Glenn said, “Someone told me last night after I had been talking so enthusiastically about this, it sounds like I was an addict to it. And I think I probably am. It was a wonderful feeling.”
Glenn was weightless for four hours, and he appreciated how quickly his sensibility adapted. He was in the middle of using a hand-held camera when he had to throw some switches in the tiny cockpit of the Mercury capsule. “It just seemed perfectly natural, rather than put the camera away, I just put it out in midair and let go of it, and went ahead with the switch position here and reached back for the camera and went on with the work.” Glenn’s joy in his weightlessness was so unexpected that the New York Times did a front-page story on it.
Inside G-Force One, after being weightless for about three-and-a-half minutes, I’ve already got the matter-of-fact ease you’d expect from a guy wearing a navy blue flight suit. Kind of. I’m sitting cross-legged, the floor three feet below me, the mats three feet above me. In easy reach in front of me float my notebook and my pen. Glenn was right: Floating in zero-g is richly intuitive. Which is crazy. I didn’t have to think before parking my pen off to one side of my head, pulling my notebook from a zippered pocket, then reaching back to find my pen where I’d left it . . . floating in midair. Weightlessness feels normal almost instantly. If you don’t think that’s weird, imagine the opposite—being weightless your whole life, then having to deal with gravity.
For convenience, people often compare weightlessness to being quietly submerged in water. Indeed, NASA astronauts practice spacewalks, wearing regulation spacesuits, in a pool so large it contains submerged mockups of the space-station modules. But being in water isn’t a good comparison at all, because the water presses on you from every direction. Any time you move—even just to turn your head or move your arm—the water pushes back. In weightlessness, you are free from all pressure. You have the freedom of the helium balloon. You are the helium balloon.
People taking Zero Gravity’s flights think they are about to have the thrill of their lives. But a zero-gravity ride isn’t a thrill ride at all. No one comes out of weightlessness with that flush-faced, heart-pumping sense of excitement of teenagers tumbling off a roller coaster.
Rather, it’s the opposite. Zero gravity provides total tranquility. Floating weightless is like meditation for your whole body. As Glenn discovered, it’s quite seductive. The end of each parabola gives me a physical sense of regret. It’s like the moment you have to leave the bouncy house at the birthday party. Can’t I stay just a little longer?
The scientific research flights are completely different. For these, G-Force One is loaded with scientific equipment, all bolted in place. The Zero Gravity staff installs straps and handholds all over the plane’s interior to give researchers and students a place to brace their hands and feet. Still, trying to work in zero gravity—trying to get actual experiments done in 27-second snippets—is disorienting and hard. It’s hard to even type on a laptop keyboard without gravity.
Giving up gravity is fun and surprisingly easy. Doing without it is another matter. Gravity, it turns out, is the ultimate convenience, the original operating system. When the space age really takes hold, space ships and space outposts may ultimately be built with spinning sections to provide artificial gravity (although the engineering problems are considerable). No spacecraft to date has had any form of artificial gravity—except on TV and in the multiplex.
Weightlessness will always be the defining feature of going to space. Because human beings are the result of gravity, the way our bodies work, the way our minds think. Even if living in space becomes commonplace, for each new person, the leap to weightlessness will never be routine.
When G-Force One lands after that Saturday tourist flight, we line up at the rear exit to disembark. The Boeing 727 has a set of stairs that drops down at the back. You walk down the steps, onto the tarmac, beneath the plane’s tail, not unlike you might if you had landed on another world, and lowered your hatch.
As I exit, Brewster, Zero Gravity’s CEO, is standing at the bottom of the stairs. She smiles, shakes my hand, and reminds me to turn the name tag on my flight suit right side up.
Charles Fishman (email@example.com) is a longtime contributor and founding staff member of Fast Company. He is at work on a book on the race to the Moon in the 1960s.