You don’t have to go to space to feel the weightlessness of orbit. Sue Nelson joins a special flight that puts its passengers into zero gravity – at least for a few seconds.
“Five, four, three, two, one…”
Not many aircraft captains give their passengers a rocket launch-style countdown before take-off, but this is no ordinary plane. For starters, everyone on board, apart from the crew, is a scientist and has passed a full medical check – including a heart assessment. This is not a trip for nervous fliers.
“Pull up. Thirty, 40…”
The captain’s instructions refer to a manoeuvre so challenging it requires three pilots to be in the cockpit. The aircraft pulls up from a level flight into an incline at increasingly steep angles of 30, then 40 degrees.
In the middle section, where the windows are blocked by a padded wall, everyone is either standing, sitting on the floor or lying down because the seats in this Airbus A310 have all been removed.
Several scientists are wearing caps covered in electrodes. Others, weirdly, have their arms inside open-ended boxes, and they appear to have three hands (more on this later). Many are staring intently at washing machine-sized metal contraptions with switches and screens. I am lying on an area of floor cordoned off by netting.
Everyone is perfectly still because it feels as if a weight is pressing down, harder and harder, on every part of our bodies. Fortunately, in a few seconds, we will all experience something extraordinary.
“… 50. Injection.”
At 50 degrees the magic begins. The plane is injected into a parabolic arc. The noise level suddenly drops and the tone of the engine shifts higher as the aircraft free falls up and over the top of the arc. My body’s heaviness, increased by gravitational forces of 1.8G on the way up so it felt almost twice its normal weight, disappears. I am being drawn inexplicably upwards. Weightless.
It is a wonderful, liberating sensation and for 20 brief seconds, while someone less fortunate at the back of the plane grapples with a sick bag, I am floating. And I absolutely love it.
Everyone onboard is experiencing microgravity, which is what astronauts encounter on the International Space Station (ISS). This zero G (zero gravity) aircraft, owned by Novespace, is the latest one used by the European Space Agency (Esa) to perform science experiments in microgravity and, to a lesser extent, astronaut training. Even in space, minute amounts of gravitational force remain because it is always present between two objects that have mass. So, technically microgravity is the more precise term for this experience, but zero G is catchier.
He wanders along to the next group of scientists surrounding a metal box. “This experiment is all done inside a combustion chamber looking at flame propagation in zero gravity.”