After years of effort, the first commercial tour service to offer zero-gravity airplane flights in the United States is finally open for business. For just under $3,000, regular folks can get a tamed-down taste of what astronauts feel on NASA's "Vomit Comet."
Passengers aboard the modified Boeing 727-200 jet will experience weightlessness for about 25 seconds at a time, courtesy of the plane's special parabolic flight path. The physics behind the experience is analogous to what happens during a roller-coaster ride or a fast elevator descent. But inside the jet's padded passenger cabin, fliers are able to tumble in the air or do a "Superman" fly-through, similar to the acrobatics performed on the international space station.
Such flights have long been available for researchers and astronauts from NASA and the French company Novespace, and the Russians took parabolic flight one step further by allowing tourists to buy rides on similarly outfitted IL-76 cargo jets.
But the venture involving Zero Gravity Corp. and Amerijet International, both based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is the first to win approval from the Federal Aviation Administration for public parabolic flights in the United States, agency spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen told MSNBC.com.
Bergen said the final required certification was granted in mid-August after Amerijet, a 30-year-old cargo transport airline, demonstrated that such flights would be operated safely. "There were extensive requirements in the area of aircraft maintenance as well as operations before we could issue the special authorization," she said.
11 years of preparation
Zero Gravity's launch caps an 11-year effort for Peter Diamandis, who is the company's co-founder, chairman and chief executive officer, as well as the chairman of the foundation behind the $10 million Ansari X Prize for private spaceflight. During a space conference in Phoenix in April, Diamandis said he hoped Zero Gravity would be "an overnight success after 11 years of hard work."
This week, Zero Gravity kicked off a nationwide round of press preview flights, starting at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey. The first flight available for ticketing is scheduled for Oct. 9 out of Fort Lauderdale, and Zero Gravity's chief marketing officer, Noah McMahon, told MSNBC.com that one full flight in December already has been sold out.
A typical parabolic flight lasts about 90 minutes, with 15 up-and-down parabolas at an altitude of 24,000 to 34,000 feet. Two "Martian" arcs simulate one-third Earth gravity, three "lunar" arcs feel like one-sixth Earth gravity, and the final 10 provide the full zero-gravity experience.
"We're not picking people who are the typical military or NASA-type astronaut, we're talking about the average person, and the average person doesn't experience weightlessness in normal life," David Bassett, president and chief executive officer of Amerijet International, told MSNBC.com. "It's the experience of a lifetime. It's something that at the end of the day they're going to be really thrilled that they did."
NASA's flight path can induce motion sickness in some people — after all, that's why they call it the "Vomit Comet." And during this summer's series of demonstration flights for the FAA, a couple of the passengers aboard the Amerijet plane reportedly looked a little green around the gills, though most were said to be delighted. The FAA's Bergen declined to characterize how the inspectors handled the flights, other than to say, "It was definitely a unique experience for all of them."
Zero Gravity's McMahon said the ride had been toned down to minimize that stomach-turning feeling. "The bottom line is that NASA flies its airplanes using a very different flight profile," he said. "Ours is designed for the maximum amount of fun and enjoyment."
Training sessions and optional nausea remedies (which passengers must procure themselves in advance) further reduce the risk of getting space-sick. "We have very well-trained, certified flight attendants as well as coaches," McMahon said.
The bottom lines
Zero Gravity's price tag for the daylong tour is $2,950, which includes preflight training and a postflight party.
In comparison, Virginia-based Space Adventures and Florida-based Incredible Adventures offer zero-gravity flights in Russia as part of a four-day tour package priced at $6,500 to $7,000. Another commercial venture, led by Zero Group, is planning to sell zero-gravity tours starting in February. The trip would involve bringing a Russian IL-76 jet to Sweden, but the pricing and logistics have not yet been fully worked out.
These packages offer a taste of exotic culture as well as a taste of weightlessness: In Russia, you tour the Star City cosmonaut complex, and in Sweden, you would stay at the Kiruna Ice Hotel. Zero Gravity's offering, in contrast, offers a taste of the familiar. Individual ticket holders would board the plane at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Alternatively, you can buy out the entire 27-passenger flight, pay a transit fee and have the plane flown to the appropriate airport of your choosing.
That's the pattern for this month's press launch, sponsored by the Diet Rite brand of soft drinks: After Newark, the "G-Force One" jet is due to visit Los Angeles, Reno, Dallas, Atlanta and Detroit before returning to Fort Lauderdale.
Zero Gravity aims to keep capital expenses down by using Amerijet's cargo planes only when needed — a scheme that Diamandis and his partners actually patented five years ago. The arrangement calls for a cargo jet to be converted to zero-gravity service in a matter of hours, then converted back after the flight.
Amerijet's Bassett admitted that the plan sounded like "a crazy idea" when Diamandis laid it out for him more than a year ago.
"When I first heard about it, I thought it was pretty novel and wasn't certain how it would be received by the FAA," he said. But now Bassett is confident that the business model will fly, thanks to the FAA's clearance and Zero Gravity's years of preparation.
"The Zero Gravity folks have been involved with NASA and have had NASA people around them for many years," Bassett said. "The majority of flight attendants have at one time or another been associated with NASA. There's a heck of a lot of experience that has been pulled together to make this operation what it is, and we're confident that it's safe and ought to be fun."