The Comfort of Weightlessness

What did I learn about being weightless? It feels totally natural, feet are worthless, and I can’t wait to experience it again.

On February 24, 2018, I had the opportunity to experience weightlessness on a parabolic flight with Zero Gravity Corporation (Zero-G). Weightlessness is a key component of the spaceflight experience and I wanted to not only understand the sensation but also how it could be used in civilian spaceflight training.

ANTICIPATION

The day of the flight, we met at a Houston hotel, local to Hobby airport, and began check-in. We discussed how we were feeling, asked questions of the flight crew, and got dressed into our custom Zero-G flight suits. This was a cool moment for me because for years I had seen others in flight suits, but I never had a reason for one myself. I’ll be extremely honest when I say the simple act of putting on the flight suit made me feel like I had a very important job to do.

We were then handed our official boarding passes, passed through security, and loaded up on the bus. Excitement filled the air. The airport was only five minutes away, so the ride over was short and sweet. We pulled up to the airport, went through the security checkpoint, and drove up to the plane.

As we came around the corner and the Zero-G plane was revealed, it all began to feel real. I dreamt of doing this for years and now it was really happening. A good friend of mine, who was my original inspiration for wanting this experience, was the Zero-G flight director on our flight. It was comforting to snag a hug from him as I boarded the plane. When I purchased my ticket, I purposefully selected a seat in the front row so I could have a clear view of the plane during take off and ascent. The ability to see the open space ahead helped me to mentally prepare me for the flight. The crew gave us the flight safety briefing and off we went.

Once we reached altitude, between 15,000-30,000 feet, we unbuckled our seatbelts and went to our assigned section of the plane. We were a group of 20 people, so they split the plane 10 and 10 giving us a full half of the plane to fly around in. We laid down on the padded floor and awaited instruction.

The plane pulled up at a sharp angle pulling us into the floor with about 1.5-1.8 G’s of force. The plane began to arch over as the flight director yelled over the intercom, “Martian Gravity One.”

Parabolic Flight Pattern. Image Credit: European Space Agency
This image is an example of a parabolic flight pattern.
Image Credit: European Space Agency

The first parabola illustrated what Martian gravity would feel like. Martian gravity is approximately one third of our body weight on Earth. On this parabola, we could do pushups easily and push up to a standing position without much effort. This was a good way to ease people into the sensation of weightlessness, allowing us time to adjust, understand what our bodies will do, and be ready to make the most out of the zero gravity parabolas.

The second and third parabolas simulated lunar gravity, which is about one sixth of our body weight on Earth. On these parabolas, we could do breakdancing moves and handstands with minimal effort.

Giddiness and laughter filled the air. We were experiencing something we had never felt on this scale. Now it was time, we were going to experience zero gravity. The flight director came on the intercom and yelled, “zero gravity one, zero gravity one!” The plane tilted forward and we began to lift off the ground.

An Unexpected Feeling

Stick in Zero G
To demonstrate zero gravity, I brought my nephew’s toy turtle, Stick, with me. I got some good shots of him floating around in zero g. He also makes an appearance in the video.
Photo Credit: Zero Gravity Corporation

Weightlessness was not at all what I thought it was going to be. For as many times as I heard people describe the experience, I always assumed it was similar to that of a roller coaster. I was wrong. The feeling was totally natural. The moment the plane tilted, I begin to lift off the floor of the plane effortlessly. I felt as light as a feather. I would barely tap the wall and would go flying across the plane. The interesting thing is in reality we were in free fall, with the plane nose diving around us, and the lack of wind made us feel weightless.

What could I compare this experince to? Immediately all I could think about was skydiving. The physical feeling of not needing your feet and relaying on body position was just like skydiving. The only key, and obvious, difference was the lack of 120 mph winds.

On an emotional level, my experience was one of pure bliss. I felt like I was letting go of the stresses of the world and just letting things be in the moment. Once I understood the feeling, all I wanted to do was float, flip, and laugh. Pure joy came over me. For those who know me well, they know I smile often. This zero gravity experience took me to a whole new level of happiness. I felt like I had a permanent smile.

Below is a quick compilation video I put together of some of my GoPro footage.

What did I learn?

Parabolic flight showed me how essential it is that future civilian astronauts understand this feeling before flight. I think the most important part of the flight wasn’t the zero gravity; it was the transition from high g’s to zero gravity. I think if trainees understand and are prepared for that transition, they will be able to maximize their spaceflight experience.

I also learned that people will react differently to weightless flight. Some people on the flight were perfectly content with floating around and absorbing the experience. Others were doing tricks, flips, and posing for photographs. As civilians train for space, it will be important to include training elements that allow the trainees to train at their comfort level and to have a good time while they are doing it.

I also spent some time reflecting about the experience and why it felt so natural to me. I came to the conclusion that my background in swimming and skydiving were key contributors to that. In reality, I have been “floating” my whole life and feel the most at home in that type of environment. Definitely lends itself well to spaceflight.

I’m still unpacking how the whole experience was for me, however the more time I spend talking about it and reflecting on the experience, the more in tune I am with how it has affected me. I already know it has changed my perspective on weightlessness, however I am still trying to figure out how it has changed my future.

Important words to live by:
Why do it if you aren’t having fun?

About the author

Erin Bonilla

Erin Bonilla is pursuing a master's degree in Adventure Education with a concentration in the psychosocial components of human spaceflight selection and training. She believes that through the development of a baseline approach to behavioral health within the astronaut selection process we can minimize long term psychosocial challenges and increase participant enjoyment.

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