|As they did for a lot of kids who grew up during NASAs 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. Dont ask.)
My weightless obsession eventually cooled, but I remained fascinated
by the idea and all its connotations: flying under ones 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.
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 whod already flown had
felt obligated to regale those of us who hadnt with an array
of colorful stories involving zero-g vomiting but once I was
buckled into my seat I began to relax. I wasnt 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
Id taken. I decided it didnt 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 couldnt 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 didnt 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. Id flown and
floated and returned to tell the tale.
The mortal coil was once again firmly affixed, but somehow it didnt feel quite so heavy.