- The Washington Times - Monday, October 16, 2006

ABOVE THE ATLANTIC — Science teacher Mike Hickey has long understood the difference between mass and weight. Now, floating in zero gravity, he doesn’t just understand it, he feels it.

The 54-year-old Cleveland high school teacher is giggling like a middle-schooler with a crush: “Ha, ha, ha. I still have mass. No weight.”

Mr. Hickey, all 197 pounds of him, is drifting along with 38 other teachers inside a specially modified jet diving over the Atlantic Ocean.

Zero gravity, once an exclusive playground for astronauts and select scientists, is no longer beyond the reach of everyday people. Millionaires, doctors and teachers are feeling the fleeting freedom of weightlessness. The price is almost $4,000 for nearly five minutes in zero gravity.

“It’s the wave of the future,” said Syracuse University professor W. Henry Lambright. “It’s part of the maturity of the space program.”

In the more than 40 years of zero-gravity flights, beginning with astronauts, the world’s two largest space agencies have flown thousands of scientists, engineers, astronauts and even the cast and crew of the movie “Apollo 13,” said Alan Ladwig, former NASA associate administrator.

Mr. Ladwig, Washington space operations chief for Northrop Grumman Corp., estimates that 50,000 people may have flown in zero gravity.

Five planes create zero-G conditions. NASA, the European Space Agency and Russia each has one. Two are commercially operated in the United States by Zero Gravity Corp. of Dania Beach, Fla.

At least three companies other than Zero Gravity Corp. sell zero-G flights to tourists: Novespace of France, Space Adventures Ltd. of Virginia and Incredible Adventures Inc. of Florida. Those companies must arrange for a jet either from Zero Gravity Corp. or the European or Russian space agencies.

Late last month, French doctors took a patient in a European plane, operated by Novespace, for the world’s first human operation in zero gravity: removal of a cyst from a man’s arm.

This month, NASA asked college students to apply for the chance to fly in zero and lunar gravity, and conduct experiments, on NASA’s specially equipped jet.

The planes soar to 32,000 feet at a sharp angle and then plunge 8,000 feet so passengers can experience 25-second snippets of zero gravity during the descent. As the plane climbs, passengers experience 25 seconds of being pushed down hard, as they feel 1.8 times the normal pull of the Earth.

NASA’s first zero-gravity jet, now retired, was dubbed the “vomit comet.” The newer commercial versions, geared more toward tourists, help passengers keep breakfasts down even as they float up. Those planes have about 35 seats in the rear for takeoff and landing and a padded play area in the middle where fliers float and frolic during weightless descent periods or lie pushed to the floor during super-gravity ascents.

In several flights that began in June, nearly 250 science teachers experienced weightlessness on Zero Gravity Corp.’s modified Boeing 727, which usually is aimed at private tourists willing to pay $3,750 a head for the experience. Their trips, complete with a boarding pass and Transportation Security Administration screenings, were paid for by aerospace company Northrop Grumman Corp. to encourage the teaching of science.

On Mr. Hickey’s two-hour, six-minute flight out of Washington Dulles International Airport, the teachers felt Martian gravity (one-third of Earth’s) once, lunar gravity (one-sixth of Earth’s) four times, and zero gravity 11 times. Each of those gravity breaks produced bursts of laughter and applause as teachers bounced off the plane’s walls and ceilings.

They tried quick science experiments, such as weighing items, juggling and playing with a Slinky.

So far, about 3,000 zero-gravity tourists have paid to fly with Zero Gravity Corp., said Chief Executive Officer Peter Diamandis. He hopes to eventually fly 10,000 people a year.

American University professor Howard McCurdy compared what’s happening in zero-G flights to the American frontier of the 1790s, when the first pioneers established outposts after government explorers.

“It becomes safer and economically viable for individuals to go,” Mr. McCurdy said. “The difference is that we’re not going west, we’re going up.”

While in the air, teachers float, bump into walls, the ceiling, floor and each other, giggling all the way, trying to eat candy and catch water droplets. Nearly everyone played Superman, arms out in front, feet floating behind like the comic book character. Three teachers even put on red capes.

But trying to explain what zero-G feels like leaves most people grasping for words.

“It was amazing, that was so amazing,” said Tracy Cindric, a high-school science teacher from Gahanna, Ohio.

Mr. Hickey, her flight experiment partner, called the experience “an out-of-body thing.”

Explaining zero gravity was Mr. Hickey’s job when he returned from playing Superman above the Atlantic to the halls of a Cleveland high school.

His students thought it was “hysterical” watching him fall on his face in the video of his trip.

More important, he said, his video offered “evidence that there is a bigger world out there for them.”

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