- Leigh Ann Henion Special to The Washington Post
My body is suspended midair, and it's all I can do to breathe steadily. Everything around me is whitewashed. The padded ceiling and floor have blurred. I'm not consciously twitching a muscle, yet I'm moving. And I'm laughing - uncontrollably - because my mind cannot accept the absurdity of what my body knows to be true: I'm flying.
I am onboard a Boeing 727 owned by the Zero Gravity Corp. It's the only commercial plane that has been approved by the Federal Aviation Administration to take passengers on a journey that re-creates the weightlessness of space. Without leaving the atmosphere, the aircraft - known as G-Force One - flies upward, then lunges toward the earth in a parabolic pattern, creating a zero-gravity environment in its cabin.
Aboard G-Force One, I've lost all sense of up and down, left and right, space and time. Even my spirit feels lighter. I'm 7 years old again, improbably living out a recurring dream about gliding over trees and fields and towns. As I float in a sea of feet and elbows, a 300-pound man slowly sails past, curled in the fetal position. The look on his face mirrors mine: absolute bewilderment.
A flight coach is standing over me, poised with a bottle of water. Orbs float out. My fellow passengers' mouths pucker, vying for bait. One woman attempting to catch water in her mouth misses, and a mercury-like glob slides across her face. When I reach out to touch a mass of water quivering before me, my finger slices through its center. Where there was one orb, there are now two. They drift away from each other, away from me. It's a gift of physics, but it feels like magic.
I have a tendency to seek out remarkable experiences - eclipses, tornadoes, vast animal migrations. I've never been particularly interested in space, but I've long been intrigued by travel's ability to stretch the boundaries of perception. So when I met a former Zero G participant who referred to her flight as "the most awe-inspiring" journey of her uber-adventurous life, I started researching how to book passage.
Parabolic flight was developed in the 1950s as a way to explore the nature of zero gravity, and NASA has long used it for research and training. It's the only way to achieve true weightlessness without leaving Earth's atmosphere (aside from drop towers, which aren't safe for human experiments).
Zero G, based out of Arlington, Virginia, was founded in 1993, but it wasn't cleared for commercial flights until 2004. G-Force One maneuvers at degrees so acute that existing regulations would have required passengers to wear parachutes. For years, the FAA seemed perplexed to the point of inaction by the idea of a commercial zero-gravity flight. According to Zero G representatives, FAA officials sometimes wondered aloud: Who in the world would want to do this?
Today, what was once accessible only to scientists and astronauts is an experience open to anyone. Tickets are expensive - $4,950 - yet more than 15,000 people, ages 9 to 93, have flown on G-Force One over the years. The plane regularly airport-hops, to give different regions better access. It's reminiscent of how, in the 1920s - when airplanes were still oddities - pilots known as "barnstormers" would take their vehicles around the country to give thrill rides. "There's a misconception that you've got to be in great shape or be somehow special to be able to do this," says Tim Bailey, Zero G's flight director. "But that's not true. This is a gateway space tourism experience."
Indeed, Zero G provides a glimpse into a perhaps-not-too-distant future when space travel will be a more standard part of human existence. Only 560 people have journeyed to space, but the rise of commercial space tourism will, someday soon, radically increase that number. Elon Musk - whom the BBC has called "both bonkers and brilliant" - sincerely aims to build a colony on Mars, and his company, SpaceX, is planning to take two tourists on a trip around the moon in 2018. Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, envisions millions of people going about their daily business in space and has founded a company, Blue Origin, to make it happen. Richard Branson's commercial spaceflight company, Virgin Galactic, has declared that it has a goal of "democratizing access to space."
A ride on Virgin Galactic's spacecraft will cost $250,000. And yet, despite the sticker shock, roughly 700 people, from 50 countries, have signed up - even though the company doesn't have a hard launch date. Already Virgin Galactic has enlisted more people than have traveled to space in all of human history.
Surely space tourism, once experienced on a mass scale, will affect humanity - and not just because it will open up new vacation opportunities, but because it could reshape us socially, culturally, emotionally. My Zero G experience gave me a window into how this might unfold: how space travel could prove consequential in ways that are difficult to imagine from this point in history. There's even a chance it might improve life on Earth.
A few hours before we took to the sky this past June, 20-odd fellow passengers and I gathered in a conference room at the Washington Dulles Airport Marriott, where I learned about their motivations for pursuing zero gravity. Josh Brown-Kramer, 37, who'd traveled from Nebraska, had nightly dreams of taking wing as a child - and they continued into adulthood. When he heard about parabolic flight a decade ago, he immediately wanted to do it. His wife and fellow passenger, Carolyn Brown-Kramer, 34, wasn't convinced it would be worth the effort until she saw videos of physicist Stephen Hawking, paralyzed by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), floating without his wheelchair in G-Force One. "I just couldn't get over the look on his face, to see that he felt an ebullience," she told me. "It was amazing to watch him overcome limitations like that."
Carolyn, a psychologist, started to think of their quest for Zero G tickets as a personal tracing of humans' ever-reaching impulse to explore beyond what's believed possible. "There's a term for that constant striving for greatness and growth," she said as we sat together, waiting for flight orientation to begin. "It's called the self-determination theory. It's the desire to have control over one's own life, to make decisions about your future. If you don't, you live unfulfilled. Plenty of people have day-to-day goals, but a lot don't have long-term goals. Five years ago, we decided we were going to do this, so we put it in our budget, and every month we made a contribution."
Bonnie Birckenstaedt, 34 - whose ponytail-perky appearance masked a deadly serious demeanor - had come from Colorado. An engineer with Lockheed Martin, Birckenstaedt had applied to, and been rejected from, NASA's astronaut program three times. "Three times," she emphasized. "What can you do?" She'd decided that, if she couldn't realize her goal of becoming an astronaut, then she'd cobble together experiences that would get her as close as possible. She'd earned her pilot's license, studied astronomy and read stacks of science fiction books. Standing in front of me at the hotel, she opened her arms and solemnly declared, "I just love the expanse."
So does self-proclaimed "space geek" Louis Lebbos, 36, who'd arrived from Portugal. Minutes after we met, he was showing me childhood photos of himself wearing a NASA T-shirt. Lebbos chose to pursue a career in digital entrepreneurship rather than employment with a space agency. But he and Birckenstaedt - dreamers of the same dream, from two sides of the world - had both finally found their way to zero gravity. "We're almost astronauts!" Lebbos told me.
Like the rest of us, he had already put on a navy-blue flight suit. He caught the edge of his name tag to inspect it more closely. The letters were upside down. This NASA tradition is a wink to the reality that, in space, there's no up or down. Only those who've earned their weightless wings wear their name tags with earthly orientation.
When G-Force One pilots gathered at the front of the room, they informed us that they'd be taking us out of the Washington area and into approved airspace over the Atlantic - a necessity since parabolic-maneuvering planes have a tendency to "scare people" on the ground and can create 911-call overloads. We'd generally be at the same altitude as commercial planes, but there would be points in the parabolic pattern when we'd be plummeting toward the earth at 26,000 feet per minute.
In case this wasn't enough to make us rethink what we were doing, the lights were dimmed for an FAA-required video that explained the dangers of not being able to reach the plane's oxygen boxes. There were also warnings against harming fellow passengers. Kicking with enough strength to give your neighbor a concussion is a nearly universal reaction to levitation. None of that, though, eclipsed our collective fear of the breakfast buffet, given that G-Force One is sometimes called the "Vomit Comet."
On our bus ride out to G-Force One, Mark Stayton, 58, from Pennsylvania, put a hand over his mouth in mock horror and said: "I wasn't nervous when I booked my ticket. But this morning I woke up and thought: Oh my God, what have I done? I'm a child of the '60s, and I've been waiting for this all my life. But I'm an old guy now. In my state, and with the state of the space program, I'm not going to have the chance to go into space. But I have this."
We entered G-Force One through a staircase at its tail. There were a few rows of belted seats at the back, where we strapped in for a 30-minute flight over the ocean to reach our approved airspace. Before us stretched a windowless, seatless cabin coated in gymnastic padding. A flight attendant came on the intercom to announce that we were currently traveling with normal gravity,andI realized something had been nagging at me: Since I'd never existed outside of gravity's grasp, there was no way for me to understand the force of what I'd been up against. A Zero G flight is, through subtraction rather than addition, a proper introduction to a phenomenon I'd taken for granted as some inextricable part of my being.
As we waited, I studied the ceiling, a patchwork of foam pieces cut to fit around fluorescent light fixtures. Soon our flight coach invited us to pad across the floor in uniform socks the color of egg yolks. There, she instructed us to lie flat on our backs. I immediately focused on a fixed point to prevent motion sickness. I'd read that deep breathing might prevent nausea, so I also started inhaling and exhaling like a woman in labor.
To acclimate fliers, G-Force One starts with gentle parabolas that offer Martian gravity, at one-third body weight on Earth, and lunar gravity, at one-sixth. It's a slow release from our home planet. When the initial parabola started, I had trouble lifting my head with gravity pulling on my body harder than it ever had before. My heart, my lungs, everything felt like it was being sucked to the floor on an amusement-park ride.
Then my arms were rising, as if pulled by unseen strings. Away went my legs. My torso. My entire body. I was free of something I'd never fully recognized. A coach suggested doing a push-up on Mars. I ended up flipping myself like a pancake.
Within seconds, I was stuck to the mat again. My coach walked by and asked how I was doing, but I couldn't speak. I gave two thumbs up and braced for our second destination: the moon. There, my body launched at the power of my pinkie and hovered until a call of "feet down" signaled that we should orient our bodies to the mat for landings.
Then, at last: zero gravity. At 1.8 G, every molecule of my body felt like it was tightening; at zero G, every molecule of my body unfurls into a state of relaxation I've never reached before. Weightlessness is sometimes defined as an absence of G-force contact stress, the measurement of pressure applied by gravity. And that's exactly how it feels: stress-less. I'm free-falling through unknown territory.
I quickly lose track of how many parabolas we've taken. Each one lasts 20 to 30 seconds, but the concept of time is foreign when you're levitating. To be weightless is to be suspended in a visceral sense of eternity. There is no end or beginning. There is only the strange relief of shedding a lifetime of expectation. The group doesn't repress its elation. There are giggles, shrieks and yelps of delight. We're no longer bound to the earth. We belong to the expanse.
Decades ago, little was known about how zero-gravity environs would affect the human body. Would people be able to breathe? Could they swallow? "They didn't know if food would even move down the esophagus," says Bailey, who is sitting next to me after the final parabola. He pops open a bag of animal crackers.
I'm weak with hunger, but I can't handle the idea of food yet. I wave off an in-flight snack and draw my arms to my chest. G-Force One is kept cold to stave off queasiness. Its florescent-lit cabin looks a little like the innards of a refrigerator. Bailey figures that, as the number of commercial spaceflights rise, so will a whole service industry. "I'm a flight attendant on my way to being an astronaut," he says. "Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, they're all going to need people like me. My colleagues and I are pioneering new career paths."
I notice that, on his flight suit, he has a picture of Earth, whereas the rest of us are wearing the American flag. He received it from a member of the Space Generation Advisory Council, a nongovernmental organization that advises groups including the United Nations. It was formed by young people who wanted a say in the future of the international space sector. When they designed a flag, they chose the planet as their symbol. "They say that's the flag we should all be wearing when we go into space," Bailey says. "We're not going as a nationality. We're going as humans."
Bailey has heard astronauts say that the first day they're in space, they look for their country. Then, they'll say, "Oh, we're over this or that continent." Then, they just look at Earth. He puts his right hand against the patch, like he might put a hand over his heart during a pledge. "I'm from here. I'm from Earth. That's the profound cultural change I think space tourism is going to push, thinking about humanity in a larger context."
There's a term for what Bailey's describing: the overview effect. Coined by author Frank White in 1987, the phrase seeks to explain why astronauts who've seen Earth from a distance often have life-altering cognitive shifts. Astronaut Edgar Mitchell has explained that this happens because, when viewing the planet from space, "you develop an instant global consciousness ... an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world and a compulsion to do something about it."
The overview effect is a mostly visual phenomenon; and in a zero-gravity plane, you don't, of course, get to see Earth at a distance. Yet there is something about the weightlessness of G-Force One that inspires its own kind of awe. And awe itself can lead to what David Yaden, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania's Positive Psychology Center, describes as self-transcendence - the experience of shedding one's sense of self to feel part of something larger. Yaden, who studies awe, flow, mindfulness and other varieties of experience, suspects that if he and his neuroscientist colleagues attached monitors to G-Force One passengers, they'd find decreased activation in passengers' brain regions that regulate both spatial awareness and sense of self during flight.
In short, feeling at one with the universe isn't a hippie notion; it's also a scientific reality. "It's important not to be overly enthusiastic about the effect it might have," Yaden says about awe and space tourism, "but here's what I hope: As more people travel into space, the increased awe will have a ripple effect, to where people value experiences over material things and increase generosity to those in need. Secondly, the planet is a salient symbol of everything that means anything to us, and space travel could help us recognize that we need to protect it."
Yaden does suspect that, over time, space travel's ability to awaken us to awe might fade. Given the way we've adapted to car rides - which once required special goggles for a spin around the block and evoked now-unimaginable wonder - it's likely that the marvel of space travel will lessen as it becomes commonplace. But, in its first decades, space tourism will straddle the threshold of novel yet relatively attainable. Which means we may be alive at just the right moment to revel in it. "It's possible that we're in the golden age of awe when it comes to space travel," Yaden says. "But I believe there's still more awe to come."
When I disembark G-Force One, a coach rips my name tag from Velcro and replaces it right-side up. Earning my wings was exhilarating - and exhausting. I shuffle over to the van that will deliver us to the hotel for what Zero G calls a "regravitation celebration."
The vehicle lurches forward. It veers right. We're no longer on the Vomit Comet, but people are still throwing up. According to Zero G's promotional materials, roughly 5 percent of passengers get sick. Of the six people who sat in my row during our belted airspace time, the percentage was 50. And every one of the besieged said they'd do it all over again.
Carolyn Brown-Kramer got so sick that she had to be strapped down in the back of the plane for most of our flight. Amazingly, even she seems glad she went. Before we've pulled off the tarmac, her husband has already announced that he would like to start saving again, month-by-month, for another zero-gravity trip.
Bonnie Birckenstaedt is also ready to go another round, though she'd like to spend her sophomore flight entirely in lunar gravity. The feel of walking on the moon was, to her, the best part of the experience. Zero gravity proved too unpredictable for controlled tricks. "Next time, I want to do more flips!" she says as we walk into the hotel lobby. "I didn't feel sick. Not even a little bit!"
Thankfully, I didn't either. Neither did Mark Stayton, whose wife had given him this Zero G flight as a 25th wedding anniversary present. "Oh, I'm so not done!" he says. "I want to go again!" For Stayton, another flight will require years of saving and planning and, perhaps, 50th-anniversary negotiations. But he has more immediate plans now that his waking life is the stuff of dreams. "I've heard that people who've done this tend to dream about flying a lot afterward," he says. "They get to go back in their sleep! I'm going to try for a lucid dream, one where I could practice moving around in zero G. Wouldn't that be fantastic?"
After the group disperses, I decide to go to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. It's only five miles away, and - as a companion facility to the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum on the Mall - it seems a fitting pilgrimage. It's only when I get to the front entrance that I realize I'm still wearing my flight suit. Despite the fact that I look ridiculous - like some sort of fangirl at an astronomy conference - I'm too tired to change.
When I reach the center's space hangar, I stand nose-to-nose with the space shuttle Discovery and stare. If I'd come yesterday, I would have gotten lost in the intricacies of the shuttle's exterior tiles. I would've focused on hardware. Now, part of me is actually bracing for unseen forces to send me into the rafters of this hangar.
On the seemingly insurmountable walk back to my car, I fiddle with the zippers of my flight suit, running their teeth through my fingers like rosary beads. When I pass the cutout image of a helmeted astronaut near the building's entrance, I move out of foot traffic and close my eyes in an attempt to regain my bearings.
When I open them, there's a little girl standing in front of me. She has a camera strap wrapped around her wrist, and I'm startled to realize that she didn't stop to take a photo of the astronaut's likeness; she stopped to take a picture of me. In the eyes of this little girl, my flight suit has transformed me into someone worth contemplating. And it might not be where she imagines I've come from that's inspiring her vicarious sense of awe; it could be the possibility of where I'm headed next.
Months after our flight, I call some of my fellow passengers to find out how they are processing their encounter with zero gravity. I'm also interested to hear what they think of Yaden's research, which I share conversationally.
"I didn't realize how overwhelming the experience would be," Carolyn Brown-Kramer tells me. Sometimes, she finds herself closing her eyes, trying to channel the elation of that first parabola. Often it eludes her. But sometimes she's able to conjure the marvel of space travel while sitting in her office chair. Her husband, Josh Brown-Kramer, is still planning a second zero-gravity flight, and he recently persuaded his father to join him.
All my fellow passengers had been exuberant about zero gravity post-flight, but Mark Stayton had seemed the most emotionally moved. When I call him, he admits that he almost hadn't boarded the plane that day because he was afraid of how his body might respond. For 10 years, he's dealt with a neurological condition that causes his feet to miss messages from his brain. "I'm reminded of gravity on a regular basis," he says. "I'm not a small guy. When I go down, I go down hard. But zero G took all of that away."
In flight, the disorientation he has struggled with for a decade was magnified in a joyous way: "I wasn't thinking about my feet, and they didn't bother me. All my earthbound notions were gone." It was poignant because of his medical history, but he sees greater implications. "Once you know things don't necessarily have to be the way they are, that they can be better," he says, "there's a little piece of hope you carry."
Stayton considers himself an introvert, but something strange has happened since he returned home: He's regularly seized by the urge to encourage everyone he knows with disposable income to invest in a Zero G ticket, because he wants to share the powerful perspective it brings. "In weightlessness, you transcend," he tells me. "Everything inconsequential falls away. That, in the end, helps you find your core. Right now, we need to get back to the core of who we are, as humans, so that we can learn to work together for the betterment of our species. If enough people can find a way to directly experience the awe of space, it'll absolutely change the world."
Henion is the New York Times best-selling author of "Phenomenal: A Hesitant Adventurer's Search for Wonder in the Natural World." Follow her on Instagram: @leighannhenion.