As they did for a lot of kids who grew up during NASA’s Apollo-era heyday, the images of astronauts weightless in space capsules and lunar modules inspired me to seek out weightlessness — or the next best thing — wherever I could.

I regularly suspended myself in the middle of the deep end of the local public pool — once to the chagrin of an overzealous lifeguard — imagining the murky, chlorinated depths to be the far reaches of space. I frequented the suffocating moonwalk bubbles at carnivals, and once even braved the terrifying Death Spin ride at the local zoo, a contraption that employed centrifugal force to pin you to the wall with your feet off the floor. (The experience was not pleasant. Don’t ask.)

My weightless obsession eventually cooled, but I remained fascinated by the idea and all its connotations: flying under one’s own power, experiencing life at the outer limits of natural laws, feeling a part of the technological rush of the Space Age. Weightlessness, it seemed to me, was the closest we could come to shuffling off our mortal coils and still have a heartbeat.
So when this magazine asked me if I wanted to accompany the UVM students aboard the KC-135A, I jumped at the chance. I’d finally be able to put all that pool, moonwalk and Death Spin training to good use.

I flew on the second UVM flight with Dan Barnett and Dan Cheung, and battled a mild case of nerves as we boarded the plane. Most of my anxiety centered around the prospect of spending the next three hours sick to my stomach. In fact, I was nauseous even before I got on the plane — for days, people who’d already flown had felt obligated to regale those of us who hadn’t with an array of colorful stories involving zero-g vomiting — but once I was buckled into my seat I began to relax. I wasn’t sure I was relaxing because we were finally engaged in the flight itself, or if it was just a pleasant by-product of the motion sickness medication I’d taken. I decided it didn’t matter.

We took off at 1:30 p.m., headed southeast over the Gulf of Mexico. Twenty minutes or so into the flight we were given the okay to leave our seats and prepare for the first series of arcs. Cheung and Barnett made final checks on the experiment as I snapped a few pictures. “One minute!” a NASA spotter called out, preparing us for the climb. I stretched out on my back, to better dissipate the powerful downward g-forces, and began repeating a silent, involuntary mantra: “I will not get sick. I will not get sick.”

Suddenly, alarmingly, the two-g climb began as the plane ascended at a 45-degree angle. My lips felt stretched against my teeth, and I imagined all the blood in my head pooling in the back of my skull. My tiny camera, suspended from a cord around my neck, pressed uncomfortably into my stomach. A new mantra emerged from my bloodless brain: “Oh boy. Uh-oh. Oh boy. Uh-oh.”

Then the pressure suddenly slackened, like a giant weight had been lifted from me. Then it slackened more. “Here we go!” the spotter shouted, and as he did so I felt my legs leave the floor. I arched my back a little, pushed against the floor with my elbows, and began slowly floating toward the padded ceiling. The mortal coil was loosened at last: amazingly, improbably, I was weightless. I involuntarily laughed out loud just as another floater, trying to figure out how to propel herself about the cabin, accidentally kicked me in the back.

After a couple of arcs most of us seemed to get the hang of moving in weightlessness. As Cheung and Barnett floated around the UVM experiment, explaining it for a NASA videographer, I crawled upside down along the ceiling of the cabin, stopping here and there to do back flips. The sensation was a bit like moving underwater, but without the resistance. The possibilities for play were endless: at one point, Barnett and I took turns spinning each other in mid-air, like beachballs on the surface of a pool. Most arcs I spent crawling around on the ceiling, which had its hazards. There were odd moments when I couldn’t discern up from down, and only by concentrating on the bolted-down experiments was I able to get my feet to the floor before the zero-g period ended.

The flight finished with an arc simulating lunar gravity, and one simulating Martian gravity. The lunar arc was a gas; a hint of gravity still tugged us toward the floor, but it was weak enough so we could leap in great bounds across the cabin. This, I thought, is how Michael Jordan feels every day. I ended the lunar arc with a series of standing front flips, landing on my feet every time. Not so on the Martian arc, however. I badly misjudged how much additional gravity there was to contend with, and my single attempt at a standing front flip resulted in a thudding landing flat on my back, which elicited a hearty wince from a NASA spotter.

After the final arc we buckled ourselves into the seats in the back of the plane and prepared to land. The rough landing took a toll on my worked-over stomach, but we got down just in time — I considered it a kind of miracle that I didn’t get sick. Back in the hangar I was euphoric. I strutted around in my flight suit and felt filled to the brim with the right stuff. I’d flown and floated and returned to tell the tale.

The mortal coil was once again firmly affixed, but somehow it didn’t feel quite so heavy.