Twenty-seven people sit cross-legged on the floor of a modified Boeing 727, nervously awaiting a sensation that until recently few other than astronauts had ever experienced. The pilot takes the aircraft into a steep (45-degree) climb and then, at 32,000 feet, pitches it forward to begin a huge parabolic arch toward the ground. A coach on board yells, "Coming out," and the passengers slowly lift into the air in conditions that mimic weightlessness within the cabin.
For would-be space cadets awaiting the much-ballyhooed consumer junkets to the edge of the atmosphere that still seem to be a few years away, this ride from Zero Gravity Corp. may be the next best thing. For about $3,000, participants experience a slight momentary nausea, followed by the exhilaration of hovering in air for periods of about 25 seconds while the plane goes through a series of some 15 such parabolas (the figure NASA's research has determined most anyone can handle without getting sick). Giggling thrill seekers typically amuse themselves by barrel rolling and catching M&Ms out of thin air. Participants are told not to push off the floor, but inevitably a couple people can't help themselves and bounce off the ceiling.
Zero Gravity, of Dania Beach, Florida, is the only company approved by the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct weightless flights for the public.Founded by astronaut Byron K. Lichtenberg and the Ansari X Prize Foundation chairman and founder, Peter H. Diamandis, the company uses the same type of flights, though with different aircraft, that are used by NASA to train its astronauts and that were employed by the director Ron Howard in the filming of Apollo 13. The Ansari X Prize Foundation is the association that recently awarded a $10 million prize to Scaled Composites for becoming the first privately funded company to build a rocket ship (SpaceShipOne) that could fly to the edge of space and return, two times in a period of two weeks, and with a payload equivalent to three adults. Today weightlessness, tomorrow the stars.