When you show up, you get a goodie bag containing a flight suit with a name badge (upsid down — his is an old NASA tradition - astronauts would wear their name badges thus until they completed their first mission) and socks, along with a souvenir T-shirt and hat. There was a light breakfast available (they recommend this for minimum risk of nausea, but I'd read the material they had sent me, and had already had a light breakfast). Then there was a video, showing how the process works, what to do, what not to do, and various tips and tricks.
When I booked the flight, I had a choice of the "gold", "silver", or "blue" groups. I intentionally chose the group (blue) with the fewest passengers, in the hope that friends would come join me. It turns out the groups are colour-coded by their socks, and each group gets its own "trainer" (ours was Trevor). Our group was tiny, just five of us plus our trainer.
We were also introduced to the photographer, and had the opportunity to request particular photos (I asked for one of me spinning, with my hair going everywhere - I had intentionally not cut my hair for this).
The plane itself is a specially modified 727, chosen because the trio of engines near the plane's centerline is said to improve control in parabolic maneuvers. I found out that the special modifications include a precision accelerometer and upgraded flight controls, to allow more accurate parabolæ. The plane, including these modifications, has to meet standard FAA approvals for passenger flights, as well as more rigorous examination for this unusual use.
On the inside, the plane has a cavernous padded space,
divided into three equal sections,
one for each group, delineated with coloured tape.
In the back were a few rows of ordinary airline-style seats. Since these flights have to obey standard FAA rules for passenger service, we also had an FAA approved flight attendant. This flight was not full at all, even the scant few rows were less than half full (I'm guessing not a lot of people indulge in this expensive recreation in a weak economy). One guy, however, was on his fourth trip! Another person in our group was along as an 8th birthday present (What a great gift! She was, of course, thrilled). The other two guys in our group had been sent as a sort of bonus/team building exercise by their company (wow).
Since the plane will be flying a very different flight profile from most commercial aviation, the FAA requires that it fly in an isolated airspace with no other traffic. This airspace needs to be 100 miles long by 10 miles wide. Our allocated airspace was way out in the Atlantic, off the coast of north New Jersey. Accordingly, after taking off from Dulles, we flew for about 45 minutes before we could start the fun part.
We all took our shoes off and stowed them en route, and when we got there, we arrayed ourselves in the big open padded areas. Our trainer pointed out that he'd never had a group anywhere near as sparse as ours, so we'd have plenty of room to play. Without the usual fittings, the aircraft was loud, and it was fairly chilly inside. I was glad to have the flight suit on over my clothes.
Our training explained that the plane would alternate
between 1.8G and zero G.
When we were about to return to gravity,
the pilot would announce "coming out, on the floor!"
and we would all get on our backs on the floor for the
There would be no announcement when we went back to null-G, because we'd know! The zero G segments would be 25-30 seconds apiece.
We'd work up to zero G in stages,
both so we could get used to it,
and to avoid possible nausea.
Our first parabola was at Martian gravity, 1/3 G.
This is light enough to do one-armed pushups,
floating somersaults, and the like.
It is amazing how fast 30 seconds flies by when you're doing something so incredibly fun and novel!
Then we were flat on our backs during the 1.8G segment. I played with lifting my arms and legs, feeling how heavy they were.
Then we did our second parabola, this one at Lunar gravity, 1/6 G. This was unexpectedly different from even 1/3 G. I was really light. I could easily do one-finger pushups, multiple spins in midair, landing lightly, wanting to leap into the air and see how high I got, but we'd all been warned that jumping can be dangerous in these conditions, our muscles accustomed to one gravity, they'd just launch us into a bulkhead or another person. This one was also over quickly, but I was starting to get used to the rhythm.
Then back on the floor for the heavy bit,
and we pulled out into zero G for the first time.
I could hear everyone on the plane quietly exclaim "Woo!"
as we all floated off the floor.
I had half-expected the sensation to be the
stomach-in-your-throat feeling you get on an intense roller coaster,
but it wasn't like that at all.
It was just fun and peaceful and sort of trancelike.
Like a dream,
As we were just starting out, we were taking it easy, just drifting around, making sure to keep oriented, taking in the experience.
All too soon, we got the "coming out!" announcement, and arranged ourselves on the floor.
In the succeeding parabolæ,
we got more sure of ourselves and adventurous.
The photographer floated around,
getting pictures of everybody.
Every single time we eased into zero G,
I'd hear everybody's happy "Woo!"
There were random collisions with other people, but no harm done. Once or twice, someone didn't get to the floor in time and made a bit of a hard landing in the foam when we pulled out. I got Trevor to spin me for the hair photo.
A couple of guys were playing catch, using the little girl as the ball. She was loving it. Time flew by.
There was a brief interlude when our plane reached the end of its assigned airspace, and had to turn around to head back the other way.
A few people had brought toys along,
one guy had a little model of the space shuttle,
so he got a picture of himself with it floating near him.
Some people were playing catch with a tennis ball. It came my way once, and I tried to gently toss it back, but my aim was ludicrously off, and it got handed off several times before returning to its owners.
Then they brought out M&Ms. A girl near me had a handful of them, and when she opened her hand, they just spread out in all directions in a slow-motion expanding rainbow - beautiful!
For our last (Last? Already? Waaah!) parabola, they brought out little bottles of water (yeah, they leave the messiest fun for last, logically enough). We had a lot of fun squeezing out globules of water and trying to catch them in our mouths. This is actually quite tricky, and water went everywhere. It is also awesomely fun.
Then we got the last "coming out" announcement,
got on the floor,
and the plane headed back towards Dulles.
We sat around on the foam floor,
simultaneously thrilled at what we'd experienced,
and disappointed that it was over.
I picked up an empty water bottle, caught Trevor's eye, and dropped it. It went straight to the floor, just like usual. I made a big theatrical frown and everybody laughed.
When we got nearer the airport, we all went back to our seats to buckle up for the descent and landing.
It was a somewhat weird feeling to leave in a plane, fly for a couple of hours, and end up back at the same airport!
At the end of the flight, as we got off the plane, we each got our picture taken as our trainers
formally turned our name badges upright.
Then we went for a "regravitation ceremony" where they handed out certificates and people could chat and swap stories.