Weightlessness isn’t just for spacemen any more. It’s become the latest extreme sport. For years NASA, the European Space Agency and the Russians have used converted airliners to simulate microgravity but the experience was only available to scientists and astronauts. Now, thanks to a few pioneering space entrepreneurs, anyone can do it.
Cyril Bennis, a former mayor of Stratford-upon-Avon, swapped his ceremonial chain for an astronaut’s flight suit on February 12th this year when he took a rollercoaster parabolic ride in a converted 727 airliner over Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
“It’s absolutely awesome. It’s like being reborn because you’re walking on your feet all your life and, all of a sudden, you’re floating like Superman. Around me people are floating, tumbling and enjoying themselves,” says Bennis. “Not a day goes by when I don’t think about my experience.”
The operator, Zero-G, adapted the plane to fly a sequence of 10 mile-long parabolas. The loss of gravity is like going over the top of a rollercoaster ride except that the feeling lasts for up to 30 seconds. The interior has been stripped bare and padded so coming ‘back down to Earth’ doesn’t require a bump on the head. Each flight includes up to 15 parabolas. The whole experience lasts a day, including instruction by a veteran NASA astronaut and a party afterwards. It costs $3,750 per person . For $95,000 you can charter the whole plane for parties or corporate events.
The company is based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and has full FAA certification for the modifications required to turn a regular airliner into an airborne theme park; a process that took them 11 years. Flights operate under the same safety regulations that govern commercial airlines like United, American and Delta.
Space Adventures, an investor in Zero-G, is the company behind Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth’s $20m-a-shot space tourism flights on Russian rockets. For a more modest fee they can send you to the Russian space agency for flights in an Ilyushin IL-76 MDK at Star City as part of a five-day training program that costs $7,995. The company describes it as an up-close and personal look at real cosmonaut training. They also run a program using Zero-G’s 727 in Florida and this was the route that Bennis took.
Xero is taking the whole thing one stage further – by launching its zero gravity flights from Kiruna, Sweden using the Russian aircraft. If floating about like Tom Hanks in Apollo 11 isn’t cool enough, you can stay in the famous Ice Hotel.
You don’t need to be super-fit to experience weightlessness. According to Zero-G, if you can ride a rollercoaster, you’re good to go. However, it is worth checking with a doctor if you have any concerns.
As pilots like to say, gravity is not optional but you can bend the rules for a while. “Over the next ten years we’ll have 10-20,000 people fly in space; creating a new group of private astronauts,” says Eric Anderson, CEO of Space Adventures. Until then, Zero-G’s 727 and the Russian’s Il-76 are the closest that the general public will get to the experience of spaceflight.