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An Audio Postcard from Zero Gravity


And more on the final frontier. A familiar figure here at NPR recently got to indulge his passion for space travel. This week on Science Out of the Box, he takes us way out of the box.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: For over a decade, NPR listeners have gotten their updates on NASA from reporter Pat Duggins. He's covered nearly a hundred space shuttle missions but always at a distance. Recently, though, Pat stepped aboard a parabolic flight. That's a jet plane that repeatedly flies in figure eights, which creates a feeling of weightlessness. Pat zipped up his flight suit to bring us this audio postcard.

(Soundbite of noise)

PAT DUGGINS: Getting ready to go weightless takes more preparation than your average space story. My recorder has to be stashed inside my blue flight suit with the microphone cable snaking out like a space-age catheter.

I'm at the Kennedy Space Center with about 30 public school teachers. We look like we have the same tailor since we're all in matching blue coveralls. There's not an astronaut in the bunch and there's no NASA insignia on our suits. Instead, the logo of the Zero-G company is stitched on. That's a Florida-based business that takes up paying customers to experience weightlessness.

The teachers get to fly free today, thanks to a grant from an aerospace company. Before we take off, we all have to get past Chaz Wendling. He's our coach on this flight.

Mr. CHAZ WENDLING (Zero-G Flight Coach): Hi. No swimming, and what we call swimming is moving your feet, okay? If I see you swimming, I'm going to grab you, okay? And I hate to do that, because it kind of ruins your experience a little bit. But for safety reasons, I don't want anybody to get kicked in the head. It's happened to me, not too fun. Not too fun.

DUGGINS: Wendling has one other job as well. One out of every three astronauts gets space motion sickness, and that can get pretty severe.

Mr. WENDLING: Want to give you your meds right now, okay? Everybody gets one.

DUGGINS: Well, I couldn't help but notice that the inside of my flight suit's equipped with an air sickness bag, so if not one then the other?

Mr. WENDLING: No, actually, that's just in the rare occasion that somebody experiences motion discomfort. Most of the time, we don't have - we never have an issue with that.

DUGGINS: With the briefings behind us, we all climb aboard Zero-G's Boeing 727 jet called G-Force-One. The rear third of the plane has seats such as you'd find on a regular airliner in the coach section. That's kind of disappointing for a $3,000 flight. The front section between us and the cockpit is hollowed out and lined with white padding from floor to ceiling. That's where the action takes place. Weightless or not, this is still considered to be a passenger flight, so FAA rules apply.

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible) to demonstrate the operation of your seatbelt. To close, insert the flat metal end into the buckle. The length may be adjusted by pulling the strap.

DUGGINS: After taking off from the Kennedy Space Center and heading out over the Gulf of Mexico, we leave our seats to go forward to the padded half of the plane to lie down. The pilot then takes us on a steep climb, which increases the feel of gravity and makes us feel riveted to the floor. Next comes a steep dive, and that's when the floating begins. A Zero-G staffer gives us a warning that our first round of total weightlessness called Zero Number One is coming.

Unidentified Man: Time to call for Zero Number One.

(Soundbite of cheering)

DUGGINS: I'm starting to feel the pressure of gravity, which should go away in just a second. And here we go.

(Soundbite of cheering)

DUGGINS: We're up off the - going toward the ceiling. Oh my goodness gracious. Everybody's floating around the cabin here toward the top, down toward the bottom.

Unidentified Man: Right there, coming up.

DUGGINS: That second warning means gravity is coming back fast, so we all quickly lie back down to avoid falling on each other. We repeat the drill 15 times. At one point, I wind next up to teacher Rita Caplin(ph). She's holding onto a hollow plastic ring with a ball that can roll round and round inside.

Ms. RITA CAPLIN(ph): This is a cat toy with a ball attached they run around with. We're going to see what happens to the ball and how this thing floats.

Unidentified Man: On the (unintelligible) for Zero Seven.

DUGGINS: And up toward the ceiling and - whoa, down toward the floor.

Once again, we're all bouncing around inside the plane. We've all reverted to teenagers on the amusement park ride of all time.

Hello, here we go. Woo.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DUGGINS: Despite Chaz's earlier assurances, three of the passengers are now strapped back in their seats, air sickness bags in hand. We may not all have the right stuff, but those eight minutes of weightlessness were about what astronaut Alan Shepard experienced in 1961 as America's first man in space.

For NPR News, I'm Pat Duggins at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

LYDEN: Wow, that sounded like fun. Pat's new book is called, "The Final Countdown: NASA and the End of the Space Shuttle Program."

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.