Returning to Weightlessness

By Keith Cowing
September 17, 2007
Filed under
Returning to Weightlessness

Last week I had a chance to re-enter a world few have visited – a realm only space travelers- astronauts, cosmonauts and the like – normally get a chance to enter.

Weightlessness. Zero Gravity. Floating.

Astronauts get to live there. My visit was incredibly brief by comparison – no more than knocking on the door – but more than enough to leave an indelible impression on me. This is my second visit to weightlessness – my first having been exactly one year ago (see “Weightless over Cleveland“).

Click on Image for larger view. Unless otherwise noted, images Copyright 2007

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Loretta Hidalgo Whitesides, Keith Cowing, and Matt Reyes on G Force One
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Tim Bailey
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Joseph Atchealak holding a Challenger Center banner in front of the Challenger inukshuk in July 2007
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Bill Readdy, June Scobee Rodgers, and Keith Cowing at the Challenger Center in Alexandria, Virginia in August 2007.
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June Scobee Rodgers and a young friend after their weightless flight on G Force One in September 2007.
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June Scobee Rodgers enjoing her first foray into weightlessness in September 2007. The Challenger Center banner in the background was taken to Devon Island.
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Feet pointed forward, we are prepared for our first parabola
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Our entire passenger and crew complement.
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Standing next to G Force One
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Matt Reyes and Keith Cowing ignoring conventional airplane orientation.
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Matt Reyes and Keith Cowing paying attention to conventional airplane orientation on their way to Devon Island.

My traveling companions: the same as last year – several dozen science teachers. My sponsor: The Northrop Grumman Foundation. My mode of transport: Zero Gravity Corporation’s G Force One.

The Northrop Grumman Foundation is sponsoring these flights. The purpose is to expose teachers to weightlessness such that they can bring the experience back to their students. Pick the right teacher and their experience can be translated – and transferred – to hundreds – possibly thousands – of students.

In a time when large corporations spend lavish amounts of money on lobbying, advertising, and backslapping, I find this continued commitment to teachers by Northrop Grumman to be refreshingly different. For the price of a series of ads in the Washington Post designed to sway Congress, thousands of children can have their education energized. If their teacher – someone they know and respect – can experience such a thing, perhaps they can too.

In the interest of full disclosure, my seat – as are the seats taken by other media and all teachers – cost Northrop Grumman something around $4,000. I paid nothing for this experience, As such, I feel that I need to take this unique opportunity and distill and pass on as much as I can from it – just like the teachers will do.

Flying with Friends

Aboard the flight with me – as Zero G staff – are my friends Matt Reyes, Tim Bailey, and Loretta Hidalgo Whitesides. Tim and Loretta are active with Yuri’s Night every year. I have known Loretta for a decade having first met her when she was involved with the NASA Astrobiology Academy at Ames Research Center.

I also met Matt when he was an Astrobiology Academy student in 2000. More recently i.e. two months ago – Matt joined Astronaut Leroy Chiao and me in a trip to Devon Island to do some educational webcasts in coordination with the Challenger Center, The Explorers Club, and The Mars Institute.

While we were on Devon Island Matt, Leroy and I – and some local Inuit students –built a stone memorial known as an “inukshuk” to the crew of Space Shuttle Challenger. We placed some mementos in the memorial given to us by Challenger commander Dick Scobee’s wife, June Scobee Rodgers. June is the founder of the Challenger Center.

A month after our trip I presented June with a Challenger Center banner that we took with us to Devon Island. The next day, Barbara Morgan addressed a group of students (from orbit) at the Challenger Center in Alexandria, Virginia. Last week, June had a chance to fly on a privately chartered flight of G Force One in Austin, Texas. Leroy Chiao had a chance to say hello to her before her flight. Aboard during the flight was Matt Reyes – and the banner we took to Devon Island.

On board June’s flight was a young boy perhaps 8-10 years old (I don’t know his name) who posed with June in front of the banner on G Force One.

Two months ago, in one of the more profound moments I can recall, young Joseph Atchealak (about the same age as the boy who flew on June’s flight) from Griese Fiord, the northernmost civilian community in North America posed with the banner and the memorial on Devon Island – a photo June and others have taken quite a liking to. Despite his community’s extreme isolation, Joseph knew who and what Leroy Chiao was and went out of his way to get in photographs with Leroy at every possible opportunity.

Young people get the connection to space everywhere. I wonder what Joseph would think of where the banner he held has been since he last saw it. I guess I’ll just have to ask him.

Back in Familiar Territory

G Force One is a Boeing 727-200 cargo aircraft specially modified for weightless parabola duty. The plane is laid out in two main areas: seats (regular airline seats) in the back third of the cabin, and a large padded, windowless “float zone” which occupies the remainder of the cabin. The float zone is divided into Gold, Blue, and Silver zones – and the passengers are divided into groups accordingly – and issued colored armbands and socks to help everyone know where they are supposed to be. For those people lucky enough to work on this plane – or to fly on it regularly – the experience is often referred to as “floating”.

Matt Reyes had the job of barking out orders over the PA as we went through the various phases of our parabolas. The idea being to stay safe – and minimize physiological factors that might interfere with the ride.

Matt’s familiar call came over the PA system “Feet down”. We were to lie down and prepare for the first series of parabolas. The first one would be at Martian gravity then several more at lunar gravity. Then, having gotten somewhat acclimated to the process; all subsequent parabolas (a dozen or so) would be pure weightlessness.

I laid down, feet pointed toward the rear of the airplane, head pointed straight up, eyes fixated on one spot on the ceiling. Then it hit. That force tugging at the back of my head pulling me in. Unlike the first time I flew a year ago, my brain knew exactly what to do without any practice. This was so cool. It was as if I had picked up the lesson I had started to learn a year ago. I was back in a place that was familiar. This time, however, I knew what to expect, and how to best utilize the experience. Hot damn.

I was on this flight to observe as well as to participate. The teachers all had experiments – simple ones, to be certain, but valid ones nonetheless. I had one simple one – to see if my iPhone would change screen orientations between landscape and portrait mode – something that it uses internal accelerometers to control.

Martian gravity was a chance to do one-arm – indeed, one-finger push-ups and summersaults. Lunar gravity was a chance to do graceful leaps and dives. Then it was time for the main act: weightlessness. Before we started weightless parabolas, we entered a short period of flat, level flight and I used this time to walk down to the Silver Zone where Matt was running the show.

We all assumed the position and waited for the first weightlessness. And then, there it was – like someone turned the gravity plates off on the Starship Enterprise, we just floated into the air. As I re-entered weightlessness Matt filmed me. After doing yet another silly stunt with my iPhone it was time to pick up where I had left off a year before.

I quickly observed that the iPhone doesn’t sense anything while weightless – that is when I rotate it, applications that normally rotate the screen orientation when the iPhone rotates did not do so. Duh. We’re weightless.

With that chore completed, I proceeded to do all the things I wished I had done a year ago – gliding, hanging upside down, diving between people and things – all of the things you see astronauts doing in space.

I also wanted to see more of the cabin during the flight – and see what everyone else was doing. So I managed to make it up the full length of the float zone in less than one weightless session. Last time it took me three parabolas! While there I visited with the Blue Team I had been trained with. We ate M&Ms, drank and played with water, threw each other around, etc. Warren Ferster from Space News was a natural at this. Then it was back down to the silver zone to hang out with Matt again.

Weightless aerobatics are something that virtually anyone who floats can accomplish. Everyone is a little awkward at first. But by the end of the trip, everyone is graceful when they are weightless. You learn your way around that fast.

Unlike the first flight last year I now had a command of the entire float zone and could make my way around obstacles – arms, legs, heads, butts, toys, and other things with ease. If only I had the entire cabin to myself … indeed, if only the experience was not so transient and continued for minutes – hours …

My first trip into weightlessness a year ago was a foray into the unexpected. This year it was no longer a novel experience – but that was not disappointing since novelty was replaced with something much more profound and alluring: the notion that this experience is something that one could adapt to – readily – as being routine.

Rewinding to Review a Fleeting Experience

All too soon we ran out of weightlessness and had to return back to Dulles International Airport. On the way back I could easily see that the collective mood had changed – from one of anticipation – and subtle anxiety – to one of exuberance and contented joy. Many wanted more weightlessness. Others had just enough to make the point.

Upon landing those who had not done this before (virtually all passengers) had their name badge ceremoniously flipped right side up as they reached the bottom of the ramp. I got to wear mine this way throughout the flight since I had already flown once before.

As we climbed aboard the shuttle bus I had a chance to talk with the teachers. They were interesting before they flew. Now that they had this novel experience under their belts, they were fascinating to talk to.

I asked Stephanie Basi, a teacher from Powhatan County Junior High School what she hoped to get out of the experience. She said “one of the concepts we teach is inertia. But it is hard to do that on Earth because of gravity. So they will see me on a video clip demonstrating inertia and I think it will be much more meaningful for them than if I were to just describe it for them in a classroom.”

I then asked her what this was like for her. She said “the experience that you get from this is a just a whole new level”. I asked her the same question I asked many other teachers: “are you going to wear your flight suit into your classroom?” her reply was identical to all the others I got: “Yes!”

I wondered how Stephanie had prepared her class for her experience. She said “We talked bout this yesterday before I flew and we will talk about it when I get back. They are going to be anxiously awaiting what I have to say about the experience.” I asked if she thought that her students would want to do this she said “Yes – at least half of them. Some of them were a little freaked out when I described it to them and the other half were asking if they could just pack themselves into my bags and go with me.”

As a reporter-type person I have found that my “reporting” is best done from the perspective of my own experience. We had several TV crews aboard this flight as well as some print journalists. I asked Keith Garvin from Channel 4 TV about this. I said, “normally when you go to cover events you stand there and things happen before you and you record, report, or give your impression of what happened. This time you were part of the very thing you were reporting on – is that different than what you’d normally be doing as a reporter?”

Garvin replied, “Yes it is – for the reasons you suggested. When we go to an event its our job to record it and to explain to our viewers as much as possible. But in an event like this we get a chance to explain it much better because get to take part in it so … it is a different experience.”

I then asked him “What is your impression of what everybody else’s’ impression is – what is it about this experience – is it transformative – is it just fun?” he replied, “it is definitely fun – it was a blast. Obviously being weightless is something that most of us don’t get to experience – unless you get an assignment like this or training as an astronaut. So being able to watch everyone and how much fun they had is important. And although you can’t exactly put it into words, you know exactly how they feel. That made the assignment worth it.”

When I asked him if he’d do it again he said with less than a millisecond pause “Yes. I did not think it lasted long enough!” Keith has one of those smiles that tells all. As he said this he had one stretching from ear to ear.

Upon arrival back at the hotel there was a group photo, and presentation of a signed certificate certifying that we had all “defied gravity, communed with floating objects, levitated and otherwise successfully completed the ZeroG weightless experience”. Yup. That about sums it up.

Why Do They Do This?

Traditionally, when a large aerospace corporation wants to make an impression they spend a lot of money on advertisements or throw big parties for Washington insiders. Funding this series of weightless flights for teachers – for a second year in a row – is a radical departure from this practice. I asked Cheryl Horn from the Northrop Grumman Foundation (who has already flown once herself) whether the Foundation is going to continue this program.

She said, “We are going to evaluate the program that we’ve had for the past 2 years. We’ve had great results. The mission of the Foundation is to support education. We want to support students and their teachers – and we want to motivate teachers because we need them in the classroom – especially Math and Science. So far we’ve seen excited, motivated, teachers – which is really the goal for this program. And we want them to continue with this message.”

I asked if this program is only going to be limited to teachers – or if it could be expanded to include students. Horn replied, “The focus for the first two years has just been on teachers. And this year we expanded it to include student teachers – college students who are majoring in education and who want to teach math and science. Getting more teachers in the classroom is really the goal right now – but if we continue the program we can certainly look into expanding – who knows!”

I asked her if there was going to be a book or a report since there are certainly some marvelous experiences to be gained from this. She said “this year we are documenting the program. We have a documentary film crew following five teachers in three of the cities – Baltimore, Colorado Springs, and Los Angeles. They are interviewing the teachers prior to any involvement in the program, then during the workshop, during the flight, and then more importantly post-flight – and how they are using their experience a year afterwards.”

Can You Remember how to fly?

In the bus back to the hotel I asked Stephanie Basi a question: “we’re sitting here in a bus (pointing to the front). Can you imagine in your mind how you’d fly over to the front of the bus – I mean how you’d actually do it?” She said “yes” I replied, “Isn’t that strange that you’d remember how – that you’d know how to do this?” She said, “Yes, it is”.

I had told the teachers sitting around me in the plane that I was going to ask them a question when we got back and that they’d be very surprised how they answered it. Stephanie showed that surprise.

I asked several other teachers the same question. You could see the same reaction forming on all of their faces. First they’d answer me and then they’d realize how odd it was that you could remember how to fly.

Last year, after I flew the first time, I wrote about being asked this question myself:

“After we had returned to the hangar, Matt Reyes pointed up to the rafters – and to some heating pipes perhaps 30 or 40 feet high. He asked me if I could picture how to jump up there. He asked this with a smirk on his face as if he knew something. Well, he did. Fresh from having been weightless I still had a memory of how to do things while weightless – like aiming my body for improbable places and then going there – effortlessly. To be certain this would fade rather quickly – yet at that moment, I could internalize the whole process as easily as I could visualize how to walk on the ground. Although I would quickly forget what I had learned while cavorting in weightlessness the experience had nonetheless imprinted something on my mind. I had even begun to develop some nascent habits up there. Had I stayed longer I would have become even more adapted – it is that natural of an experience.”

It has been almost a week since I flew – yet I can honestly say that I can still remember what it would take to do this. I am certain that this will soon fade. But as I mentioned before, this experience was interesting to me inasmuch as I picked up where I left off a year ago – kind of like hoping on a bicycle after not having ridden one for years – and picked up where I left off.

Nonetheless, this is still a fleeting notion. But while it lasts I can savor a hint of what it might be like for future space travelers who find themselves slipping in and out of weightlessness in a routine fashion. There are already people – my friends Matt, Loretta, and Tim – who do this several times a day. But they only get little fleeting doses.

Loretta and her husband George have bought a seat on one of Virgin Galactic’s flights where they’ll get 5 minutes or so of pure weightlessness.

That’s still not enough for my tastes. My wife and I met rock climbing, so I already know her answer.

Related links

Weightless Over Cleveland – Part 1: Floating Teachers

Weightless Over Cleveland – Part 2: Learning to Fly

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.