Weightless Over Cleveland – Part 2: Learning to Fly

By Keith Cowing
October 1, 2006
Filed under
Weightless Over Cleveland – Part 2: Learning to Fly

A few weeks ago I had an experience – one that I will remember for a lifetime. Along with several dozen teachers, I flew aboard a jet aircraft as it went through a flight profile designed to produce authentic weightlessness – the kind space travelers experience – albeit in small, bite-sized chunks.

Alas, the experience was far too short for my liking. As someone told me just before we took off, this can become addictive. I can see why now. I’d love to do this again – and again.

I was along for the ride as a guest of Northrop Grumman Corporation who purchased a dozen flights from Zero Gravity Corp. for the prime purpose of exposing teachers to weightlessness. With a per seat cost averaging around $4,000, the total cost of the program is certainly close to $1,000,000. The hope is that the teachers will then translate this unique and exciting experience into lesson plans for their students – instruction that will serve to motivate and excite students to study math, science – and perhaps to pursue a career in space exploration.

Click on Image for larger view.
Images Copyright 2006 Northrop Grumman [NG] or
SpaceRef Interactive [SR]

G Force One waits for us [SR]

Doing the Right Stuff Strut [NG]

Alan Boyle and I await our first parabola [SR]

MSNBC’s Alan Boyle lifts me over his head in lunar gravity [NG]

Video: a self portrait while weightless [SR]

Scott Newell shooting video while weightless [SR]

Enterprise takes flight [SR]

Shooting video of a weightless “Enterprise” [SR]

Sitting in the VMS simulator’s pilot position [SR]

Video: VMS [SR]

CMDR Tucker [L] and Ensign Mayweather [R] sitting on the ceiling aboard Enterprise NX-01 [Paramount]

Based on what I saw these flights would have precisely that effect on the teachers – and through them, upon their students. Indeed, the effect is nearly instantaneous. The teachers could not wait to get back to their classrooms.

In addition, I found that this flight was not an isolated event, but rather one of an arc of experiences that would unfold for me in the coming weeks – experiences whereby I learned some interesting things about the inherent flexibility of my 50 year old vestibular system.

What follows is broken into two parts – the first part being a description of this marvelous program and the effect it has had on the participants. The second part is my own personal observations and thoughts.

Weighing on My Mind

Having once been a teacher myself (Biology, Chemistry, and American Sign Language), then a NASA employee, and now a communicator of sorts, I have always found using my personal perspective as a backdrop to be the most effective – and honest – way to describe things – whether it was teaching or writing. For this experience I simply cannot fathom how I could describe it and not include my own impressions, emotions, and aspirations.

I am an Apollo baby. I grew up with America’s space program. The first chance I had to experience something akin to weightlessness (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) came when I discovered that I had an unusual ability to stay underwater for what was apparently an unusual period of time (much to the chagrin of lifeguards). One normal breath and I could spend three or four minutes underwater easily – and do so for hours on end. I could go even longer if I breathed a certain way and limited my exertion. As such I was able to spend significant time in what feels in many ways like being weightless – even if it was punctuated with the need to surface and breathe.

Of course, gravity did not go away – rather my body found itself buoyed up by water such that I could move and orient myself in ways that were not possible on land. One of the first things I learned that I enjoyed was doing acrobatics underwater – and placing my body in all manner of odd orientations. On more than one occasion I’d put on a few weight belts and try to simulate the peculiar gait I had seen astronauts adopt while walking on the moon. Indeed, in the photo taken on a 100-foot dive with some NASA buddies, I am (typically) the one oriented upside down.

As I got older, I found myself living on boats for long periods in the summer – seemingly immune to any form of motion sickness. I discovered a trick early on. When my brain started to tell me that something was amiss from the perspective of my vestibular system I used my eyes and told my brain that all was well. And that was it. This worked well during roller coaster rides, reading books in cars, and aboard small planes flying through choppy air in the Canadian arctic.

Weightlessness is something I have been imagining for more than 40 years. Watching TV in the 60s I became rather critical of the ways it was depicted. The film “2001: A Space Odyssey” changed that. While some of the scenes wherein people walked on walls covered with Velcro might seem odd to today’s astronauts, some of the EVA scenes were flawless (to my eye).

After a stint at Rockwell International in the early 1980s I returned to finish my biology degrees. My research had to do with simulated hypogravity and bone development in chickens. When I came to work with NASA (at first for USRA) the very first thing I worked on was space motion sickness. I later ran peer review panels on the topic for NASA. When I became a NASA civil servant one of my prime responsibilities was assuring the best possible microgravity for researchers on Space Station Freedom – as well as the integration of the (now cancelled) 2.5 Meter Centrifuge facility. While at NASA I learned how to SCUBA dive (formally that is) – and rekindled an earlier passion for rock climbing – a hobby, which involves falling – and thus a profound respect for gravity.

As such, it should be clear that gravity – and the lack thereof – has been on my mind for a very long time. Now I was going to witness its absence for the very first time – without out worrying about splattering onto the ground.

All Aboard

G-Force One is leased by Zero Gravity Corp. Most of the time it carries cargo. But on dates such as this, it is transformed into a flying zero gravity chamber. With seating in the aft end of the plane for several dozen, the rest of the airplane is a padded tube divided into three “float zones”.

While there are five planes in the world, which have been configured to provide weightlessness for their passengers, only one – G-Force One is privately operated. Before our departure this plane had already flown 87 flights for those seeking to have the experience of weightlessness. You don’t really need to be in tip top shape to fly either – so long as your doctor says you can take it – and the experience is not all that different in terms of physical stress from a daredevil amusement park ride – except this time you are not strapped down when you go for the fun part of the ride.

In order to be certain that people do not get to the point where they may become uncomfortable – or get sick, the number of sessions are limited to 15. When you approach 20 to 25 loops you reach the threshold where a significant number of people start to feel sick.

There are drugs you can take – but that just seemed to be the wrong thing to do. I wanted to experience weightlessness – not be isolated in one way or another from it. So, I declined all drugs, and was determined to follow all of the rules.

You could clearly see the wonderment in the eyes of every teacher – a wonderment that grew as the day progressed. It was kind of funny to watch individual reactions as we got closer and closer to flying. The day began with everyone (ages 30-perhaps 55) acting in typical teacher demeanor. That would soon change.

Then the flight suits were handed out. This was followed by specific training as to what to expect during the fights. Once we were all suited up the collective behavior made a clear transition toward a more youthful mode. By the time we had been given our special socks, prerequisite package of M&Ms, and in some cases, prescription drugs (again, none for me) everyone was really excited.

As we posed for various PR photos and videos, no one needed to be coaxed into smiling. By the time we climbed aboard the plane you’d have thought it was lunchtime in the school cafeteria. As we went through various gravity levels and then on to weightlessness this behavior morphed into one of pure joy. Weightlessness is an inherently fun place to be – at least for the brief exposures we experienced.

While all of the teachers will need to take their experiences and transform them into teaching plans, reading lists, and lab assignments, they will be able to communicate what I think is the most potent part of the experience: the truly unique personal feelings you have when you experience a physical phenomena so unusual – and so hard to achieve. How better to appreciate weightlessness than to use one’s own body as a test object.

The experience

Zero G Corp has a staff of a dozen or so people who make certain that everyone knows what to do and that anyone who might be having problems is immediately taken care of. We were divided into three teams – Green, Blue, and Yellow – and assigned a coach – one for each float zone within the aircraft. Each person is assigned a colored pair of socks (with grip treads) and a colored armband.

You’d think that a flight such as our on a private jet would have some flexibility when it came to security. No such luck. We needed a ticket to board – which was checked twice, had to show a picture ID, and were screened in TSA fashion with a wand, etc. Some of the teachers had small vials of fluids with them that were not allowed and had to be brought aboard by Zero G personnel. Better safe than sorry, I suppose.

After some photos on the tarmac – including a walk toward the camera so as to re-enact the slow motion astronaut walking scene in “Armageddon”, we showed our tickets and walked up the rear ramp of the plane. Having been aboard 727 cargo jets flying to the Canadian arctic the sights and smells were familiar. This was indeed a cargo plane.

I was in the yellow group and was at the front end of the plane. With me were Alan Boyle from MSNBC, his cameraman Scott Newell, Northrop Grumman Vice President Art Stephenson, and half a dozen teachers. Our coach was Sophia Kim from Northrop Grumman. The plan was for everyone to get adapted to the experience, perhaps do a few coordinated stunts, and then the teachers would do their experiments while we media watched them and shot interviews.

You enter the jet from the rear and sit in standard airliner seats for the ascent up to normal airline cruising altitude. As we took off and headed for cruising altitude the teachers began to sound more and more like their students. There were coordinated cheers, whoops of joy, and lots of giggles and laughter. No one seemed nervous – but everyone was clearly anticipating exposure to something very new.

Meanwhile, the Zero G crew set up a series of video cameras and places the items that the teachers would use in their respective float zones. Our shoes were collected in a big mesh bag. We then moved to our respective float zone.

As the first parabola approached Matt Reyes from Zero G Corp stood at the aft end of the float zone and gave an alert via a megaphone.

Easing Into Weightlessness

Hearing the alert, we dutifully laid down with our feet pointed aft as the first ascent began. The feeling is not unlike a roller coaster ride except it is much more potent and sustained. I did exactly as I was told and looked straight at the ceiling. I quickly processed the unusual feeling and told my brain that this was normal – and fun. Within a few seconds everything became a pleasurable experience in that I knew that it would be followed by weightlessness. Yahoo.

The first parabola was Martian gravity. There was no doubt that we had entered a new environment – your stomach drops and you find yourself floating up almost without effort. I quickly noticed that I could use muscles that would normally not move my body on their own. While we were told not to jump straight up (you’d hit your head rather fast) we all bounced around. The astonishing thing was how little effort it took push off with my feet. Everyone was laughing and just getting used to the notion of this odd way of moving when Matt called out on the bullhorn to lay down.

The second pull up seemed harder than the first given the cavorting we had just done – but it was not an unknown experience. Next up was the first of four lunar gravity level parabolas. As we reached the top of the arc Matt announced “Lunar G”. The experience was markedly different than Mars gravity. Indeed, I thought I was weightless. I pushed off, went horizontal and just floated. After a few seconds it became clear that I was drifting down – but it took a long time for my brain to notice that I was falling – and even when it did I found that I did not need to spend a lot of time worrying about it.

Over the next three lunar parabolas I managed to get the whole process down. Not only was I comfortable, I was getting very anxious to experience full weightlessness. At one point Scott got a shot of Alan Boyle lifting me over head as he would a set of weights in a gym – which Alan would later post on the MSNBC website. Others were doing push ups with three or four people on their backs. No one was doing science – yet.

The next parabola was truly unique. As Matt yelled out “Zero G” everyone cheered – and suddenly there I was. After imagining what it would be like for nearly all of my 50 years, I was weightless. The only word I can find that describes the experience was “perfectly natural”. It wasn’t profound as I somehow thought it might be. As each parabola came and went I would become quickly accustomed to how to function in weightlessness – with a new skill added with each brief exposure. Adapting to weightlessness is something humans do automatically.

And just as I got used to this novel experience, it was time to head home. I could have done this all day.

Of all the people on my flight I can honestly say that I only saw one person who I though had any issues with queasiness. He was immediately identified by his coach and promptly attended to. I am not sure what happened, but he had one of the biggest grins on his face when we landed a few minutes latter and spoke gushingly about the experience. I am certain he was fine.

Learning New Habits

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.

A friend of mine who flew on a Shuttle Spacelab mission on the early 1990’s told me of one habit (a common one, so I am told) one that he found hard to shake – the propensity to put something somewhere so as to be able to pick it up later. Where you placed it in Zero G did not really matter – just so long as you could reach it later. Watch any routine video from the space station and you will see people doing this without much thought. You only attach things (with Velcro or straps) if you don’t want it to float off. Otherwise, you don’t need to give any thought to placing things on a surface – if that was how you needed to place it. My friend reported several instances once he had returned to Earth where he dropped more than one coffee cup – much to his family’s chagrin – and amusement.

It happened to me too. I am not sure if I did this subconsciously thinking of what friends had told me abut life in space. Nonetheless it happened – and it had a rather profound effect on me.

Everyone brings at least one personal item aboard to play with or be seen within a photo. I brought a 5″ scale model (a Hallmark ornament actually) of the first Starship Enterprise (NX-01). I managed to get a few video snippets of it floating about – but I was not satisfied with the shots.

As we approached the end of our flight I decided to focus one parabola on getting good video of it – and learning the fine points of manipulating an object in weightlessness. Some things are easy while weightless – others take some practice. First, I put the model on my chest. Then, without thinking, I picked it up and simply placed it above me where I wanted to photograph it – and let go so I could fiddle with my camera. My little Enterprise promptly fell to the deck (we were still in level flight). I was startled for a moment since I expected it to just hang there until I was ready to put it in the right position – just as I had done several times over the past 20 minutes. But wait – we were in level flight – between parabolas.

How quickly these habits form! It just seemed so natural to be able to just put something where I wanted it to be – regardless of where in three-dimensional space that location happened to be.

Altering your frame of reference

When Matt asked me to imagine moving my body to a point 30 or 40 feet away – one that just happened to be over my head – I did not hesitate to start figuring it out in my head. Of course, people do this in many situations – in an intellectual fashion. As a former rock climber I can recall multiple times when I would walk past a vertical surface – building, cliff – it did not matter and mentally work my way upon its surface. I’d also envision rappelling down them as well. I did this mostly with an intricate 3D construct in my mind. Alas, as I climbed less often, that innate ability to internalize three-dimensional vertical space faded – but it did not go away entirely. This new weightless experience would fade too. I hoped I could retain a bit of it – and maybe (one day) refresh it.

Indeed, when I was totally into climbing and was doing 800 -1,000 foot sheer vertical climbs I adopted a curiously similar frame of reference. After several hours on a vertical surface you almost start to imagine that you are on a horizontal surface – with “up” being “ahead” and “below” becoming “behind”. You are still very cognizant of being on a surface where a fall means that you could splatter on the rocks way below – but your mind starts to take the situation and adapt it to something more familiar.

Of course, unlike weightlessness where you want to let go of things, when you are climbing you constantly check to see what is connected to what – and that in the end that you are firmly connected to the cliff. Once you get that process down you can remove yourself from some things for a moment and truly appreciate the special nature of where you are. Climbers call these moments where you get a true grasp of the special nature of where you are “exposure” You can’t really explain or describe “exposure” but if you talk to another climber it is an unspoken common bond.

I had a similar experience during my flight and my brief exposure to weightlessness. It is far easier to do this while weightless than on a cliff! Trust me, you don’t want to experience weightlessness on a cliff if you don’t have to!

Funny thing – just as I had observed when I wrote about this climb in 1991, the words from a Tom Petty song (“Learning to Fly”) came to mind:

I’m learnin’ to fly

But I ain’t got wings

Comin’ down

Is the hardest thing.

Sweet spot on the ceiling

After Matt had asked me to visualize a leap up into the rafters, I chuckled and told him that this all reminded me of yet another Star Trek moment. Specifically, a scene from the first episode of “Enterprise”. In this episode, everyone was learning to get accustomed to a new ship. The ship’s engineer was prowling around and happened upon one chamber where an ensign was sitting upside down – on the ceiling. This was odd given that the ship had artificial gravity (whatever that is).

The ensign – the ship’s helmsman, was a “boomer” i.e. someone who grew up on slow moving starships. He explained his orientation by noting that every ship had a “sweet spot” where all of the artificial gravity cancelled out (again whatever that means). The ensign told the engineer to just “push off”. He did – and he found himself weightless and doing a somersault – slamming into the ceiling – and then commenting about how odd this was.

If sitting on the ceiling was odd, so was spilling water on the ceiling (yes, you can do that). One of the fun things to do while weightless is to use squirt guns or water bottles and serve the spheres of water that form. Eventually, those spheres, which are not swallowed by someone, end up touching a wall of the cabin. Capillary action causes the droplet to adhere to the cabin wall (in this case the ceiling). When we’d return to gravity that water would start to fall (think of that scene from Apollo 13).

As we reached one point in the flight where we were pulling 1.8G I found myself under such a collection of raindrops and complained that someone had “spilled water on the ceiling”. Everyone around me laughed – but you could tell that there was a pause while they contemplated the oddness of what I said and factored it into the strange environment we were all in.

On a related note – when I worked for NASA on the Space Station Freedom program, one of the things I had to worry about – and fight for – was getting the best possible microgravity for the payloads that needed it. We also called the location within the station where you got the best microgravity the “sweet spot”. Alas, every time we redesigned the station (we did a lot of that) that sweet spot moved. It always managed to stay in the ceiling of the U.S. lab module.

The first time I had to fight this battle, the rack location where the sweet spot was located housed urine processing hardware. We eventually moved this – but then another redesign moved another piece of hardware into the new sweet spot location. I left NASA shortly thereafter but I am certain that battle continued for years as the design changed again and again.

Dreams and reminders

In 1991 after attending a NASA meeting in Estes Park Colorado, I climbed an 800-foot tall pillar in Rocky Mountain National Park named the “Petit Grepon”. The experience was life altering and I can still relive it today, 15 years later. One of the most vivid recollections came from a nap I took – alone while I was on the summit. Oh yes – the summit was a small area about six feet on a side. I was up there alone for several hours while my climbing partner descended to help someone else up the cliff. I was dead tired and, firmly attached to the rock, fell asleep.

I woke maybe 20 minutes later refreshed. As I awoke my mind went through a rather odd series of realizations for a few seconds – kind of like a computer as it is turned on – ending with “oh yea, I am sleeping atop an 800 foot tall pillar. 24 hours later I was home. I immediately went to sleep to make up for lost snooze time. I awoke (again) and thought I was atop the Petit Grepon. The illusion lasted just long enough to be most pleasurable.

As you will recall AP reporter Seth Bornstein, said that he hoped to dream about the experience. Well, I did – and so, I learned, did Seth. The night after my weightless flight I dreamed – I dreamed of weightlessness – not the sort where your have 25 seconds – but rather endless amounts. I have never had such a dream before. This dream served – as dreams often do – to cement the impressions of this experience in my mind.

There would be more of these little reminders of my experience in the days to come.

Shake, Rattle, and Roll

As I mentioned before I am not adverse to choppy sea or air travel. I just adapt my mind to it and go with the flow. To be honest I often find jarring flights or choppy sailing trips to be fun while others are getting motion sickness. As our little CRJ 100 commuter jet taxied to the runway for the short flight from Cleveland to Washington, I passed G Force one. It was being prepped for its flight home to Ft. Lauderdale – and its return to cargo duty.

We were promptly airborne. Instantly, my body reacted to the accelerations and movements in an anticipatory fashion. Something fun was going to happen – or so my body was telling me. As we climbed there were several times when we dropped a bit – and my stomach dropped too. Curiously this was exactly the sort of feeling you got an instant before becoming weightless. As such I found myself hoping that we’d have a rough flight home. No joy. Things soon settled down. And no weightlessness either.

As we descended into Dulles International Airport we came in from the southwest. Just as we banked to make a turn so as to head north, the plane suddenly – and violently – rolled perhaps 45 degrees to the right. Almost as fast, it corrected itself and resumed perfectly normal, smooth flight. Many people let out some fearful noises. I was silent since I had been too preoccupied analyzing the experience itself. The idiot next to me started to theorize about a plane malfunction. We were later to learn that some residual turbulence from a Boeing 777 ahead of us caused the incident. The pilot – and the plane – did exactly what they were supposed to do in that situation.

I wasn’t all that perturbed – but I was keenly aware that something anomalous had happened. Once I knew that we were OK I processed the experience as something ‘interesting”. Given that I was writing this part of my story – about plane movements – it was rather fortuitous. Yet ahead of me another passenger had a totally different reaction. Perhaps 12 years old, a young boy sitting in front of me immediately yelled “AWESOME” in a clearly enthused voice. He did not even take the time to be scared. He enjoyed this jolt. “Can we do that again?” he added. Everyone let out a nervous laugh. “My kind of kid” I thought to myself. I then began to wonder what he’d think of flying zero G parabolas.

Is this really like outer space?

Exactly one week later – almost to the hour, I was sitting in the auditorium at NASA Headquarters participating in a news conference with the crews of Space Shuttle Atlantis and the ISS. Given that there were several space rookies aboard, I was interested in their reaction of going from short spurts of weightlessness to non-stop weightlessness. I thought I’d ask Atlantis co-pilot Chris Ferguson (one of the rookies). Ferguson had been my “commander” during a simulated shuttle ascent and landing several years earlier at JSC in the full motion simulator astronauts use for training (see “Embedded at NASA“). So I was particularly interested in his reaction having seen him in the midst of a high fidelity albeit earthbound – version of a Shuttle ascent.

I asked him “a week ago today while you were waiting to launch I found myself on a Northrop Grumman-sponsored jet with a bunch of teachers flying weightless parabolics. It struck me – that for you space rookies – the longest exposure to weightlessness you had during your training – 25 seconds or so – was what we were now experiencing. Can you tell the students of these teachers what it was like to go beyond visiting weightlessness for a few seconds at a time – to actually living in weightlessness – and where this transition first made itself apparent to you”

Ferguson replied: “First of all I have had a chance to fly similar Zero G airplanes – and I was told at the time that the experience is really nothing like being in space. And that was my first perception too when the main engines shut off – that this is entirely different. Living and working in zero G is extremely challenging. You feel a little bit clumsy at first – and you end up banging into a few things. But before too long you manage to find your “space legs”, if you will, and you realize that you can utilize the ceiling, the walls, and the floor equally as effectively – there is a lot more room in space. So, given the 6 full days that we’ve been here I’ve developed a little bit of the ability to make my way around the shuttle – and around the station – without ripping too many things off the wall. So, it’s a lot of fun.”

That Sinking Feeling

A couple of days later I found myself on yet another jet – to California. The flight left Washington at 6:30 am – so I was more interested in sleep than reliving vestibular cues from my Cleveland weightlessness. While attending a meeting in San Jose I visited Ames Research center. Someone had read my initial postings online about my Cleveland experience and I was offered a chance to fly some simulated space shuttle landings in the VMS – Vertical Motion Simulator.

The VMS is unlike many other simulators in that three full axes of motion are combined with a substantial amount of real horizontal and vertical motion. The cab is able to move 60 feet vertically and 40 feet horizontally – as well as roll, pitch, and yaw. A complex series of pulleys and actuators combines to provide an amazingly accurate simulation of a descending air vehicle. Interchangeable cabs allow a Space Shuttle, lunar lander, and other vehicles to be simulated. The VMS has been very popular rover the years with astronauts. Future uses may include simulating lunar and Martian landings.

The first time I flew a shuttle simulator in 2003 I managed to land it on the skid strip at KSC – but I over controlled and ran off the runway, killing some virtual alligators in the process. That simulator was quite real in a visual sense – more so that this crude cockpit – but there was something lacking.

The moment the simulator kicked in you could feel what had been lacking before. My vestibular system, stomach, and other things my body uses to locate itself in space were all totally convinced that I was descending in a flying vehicle. Unlike the JSC simulator, closing my eyes did not dramatically alter this perception.

This time I had three landing attempts. On the first two landing attempts I tended to shoot high and low “porposing” as I made my approach. One the third attempt I let my visual and vestibular system integrate and suddenly the process was natural – and I landed more or less on the centerline.

When I flew home a few days later, I closed my eyes and this time I could clearly envision a landing airplane in my mind – with a clarity I had never experienced before. Yet another lesson my neurovestibular and visual systems had learned.

One thing that has concerned NASA is the extent to which astronauts might loose their flying skills after prolonged exposure to microgravity. As such, shuttle pilots on long (2 weeks) missions have been provided by a laptop-based system where they can practice while in space. To be certain, these pilots have had decades of opportunities to hone their skills, yet short bouts of weightlessness may serve to cause their brains to adapt to a new norm. The question that remains is to what extent any such decrease in flying skills might hamper missions to distant locations such as Mars wherein crew may spend months in microgravity.

The Ultimate Passengers

It is one thing to fly teachers. It would quite another to take the next step and actually fly students. I asked three teachers, Patrick Walsh, Raina Whitman, and Wendy Durant from Patrick Taylor Science and Technology Academy in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana about this. They replied unanimously that they would support such a program. There apparently has been some interest in this – however there are some FAA regulations to deal with as they apply to flying children (consent, parental accompaniment, etc.) before any such student weightlessness flights.

It is quite clear that kids enjoy hands one experience with space-related educational programs such as those sponsored by the Challenger Center and Space Camp. Given the relative ease with which weightless exposure can be provided, I can’t think of a more powerful motivator for students than the prospect of personally experiencing weightlessness.

It is one thing for an adult teacher to experience weightlessness and then pass it on to their students. It is quite another matter entirely to tantalize a student’s imagination at an early age. According to Linda Froschauer, President of the National Science teachers Association (who flew on one flight out of Washington Dulles) most people who decide to pursue a science or engineering occupation more or less do so before leaving 8th grade.

Imagine the reaction of hundreds – perhaps thousands – of students having hands on experience with weightlessness. Given the concerns many have about the dwindling number of science and technology professionals, such exposure might serve as a potent remedy.

Imagine when some future politicians seek to cut NASA’s budget. Grown students might take these cuts a little more seriously since something that was such a part of their youth was now being threatened.

Imagine also future companies who feature suborbital or orbital flights -and the pool of potential reflights among those who first experienced weightlessness as a child.

If nothing else, stop and Imagine for a moment the reaction of these kids to their first exposure to microgravity. I think I know exactly what it will be like – I heard it in the voice of the young boy sitting in front of me in that flight home from Cleveland:

“AWESOME, let’s do that again.”


Weightless Over Cleveland – Part 1: Floating Teachers

Returning to Weightlessness (September 2007)

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