By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Our team leader just informed us that we're one minute from zero gravity, so get ready. That means we're one minute from complete weightlessness--from floating freely like an astronaut. We'll be able to do flips and twists, climb the walls like Spider-Man or drift aimlessly. We're one minute from total freedom--from something that's an almost indescribable rush. I have a huge smile on my face; David Bowie's "Space Oddity" plays over and over in my head... commencing countdown, engines on.
I am Johnny SpaceBoy.
This is the newest extreme sport now being offered to the public. For $3,000, a private company called Zero-G will take you up past 30,000 feet in a converted Boeing 727-200. That's where we are now. The inside of this windowless plane is hollowed out, and there are heavy gym mats on the floor. There are three teams--we're "Blue Team"--and each group sits on its respective mat as the plane begins to reach the crest of the parabolic pattern that will simulate the weightlessness. The maneuver began at 24,000 feet when the plane pitched upward at a 45-degree, nose-high angle. At 34,000 feet, the plane levels off and begins to pitch downward at a 30-degree, nose-low angle. It's that 20 or 30 seconds in between, when the plane is essentially level, when you experience weightlessness. (The physics: When centrifugal force up equals centrifugal force down, you're weightless in the middle. I know that only because a guy from the Science Place is in my group, and he told me so. He's good fun. Before we took off, he was saying things like "Well, the sky is the limit now" and "This will be uplifting.")
We've already done five or six of these maneuvers. Five or six times I've flipped and twisted, but this time I've decided to get tricky. Along with a few others, we've moved to the front of the plane where there's a bulkhead against the cockpit. After we become weightless, we plan on floating halfway up the wall before pushing straight out and flying like a comic-book hero.
I am Johnny Superman.
"OK, go ahead," one of the team leaders tells us.
The two women to my left push off the wall before me, but they don't push hard enough, so they don't go very far. Not me. I push off as hard as possible because the Zero-G photog, who is directly in front of me about 15 feet down the cabin, is about to take my picture. So I push hard. Too hard.
I'm shooting straight for him, but I can't stop. This is the problem with physics and the whole "a body in motion tends to stay in motion" thing. There's no avoiding it--I'm about to ram into the camera guy. "Oh, shit," I say, right before head-butting him on the top of his left leg near his waist.
At least I hope it was his leg.
My co-workers got the most out of it. During a staff meeting about a week before the flight, nearly all of them made a stupid crack about how I should probably make out my will, which I did. They're great people, my co-workers. (That's why the mentally unstable and dangerous among you should come by for a visit. We're located at 2130 Commerce St. Stop by any time. I'm usually never there.)
The flight training assuaged my fears, though. We began at 7 a.m. They issued us an astronaut-style flight suit, which made me feel safe. Plus, there was an actual astronaut--Colonel Rick Searfoss--in our training session who would later accompany us on the flight, which made me feel safer. They tried very hard to make it "an experience." (Sometimes they tried too hard. They showed us hokey, 1950s-esque artists' renderings of how we'll all be living on Mars soon.)
For about an hour, while some of my peers ate croissants and pastry and drank coffee, we learned what was about to happen. They showed us slides: people flipping, people laughing, people smiling. That sort of thing. They told us that NASA has been training its astronauts this way for the last 40 years and that it was all approved by the Federal Aviation Administration. There were no slides of fiery crashes or gruesome deaths (which surprised me considering the FAA signed off). But it was all very reassuring. Still, it was possible, the instructors said, to experience protein ejection--jargon for booting everywhere. That wasn't so reassuring.
But hey, they reminded us, there were positives. We'd be doing three types of parabolas. The first would be one-third the gravity on earth (to simulate Mars); the next would be one-sixth the gravity (to simulate the moon); and the last would be zero gravity.
"Think of it this way," the instructor quipped, "during that first phase, if you weigh 150 pounds, you'll only weigh 50 pounds."
My fellow spacemen laughed at that and gobbled more croissants. It reminded me of a Simpsons episode in which they tell schoolkids about colonizing the moon and how they'll weigh less up there. One of the fat kids hears this and starts devouring pie. "Slow down, Tubby," the narrator says, "we're not on the moon yet."
When astronauts train, they usually do 40 or more parabolas in one day. Even Tom Hanks and his cronies on Apollo 13 put up with it for a while to film their movie. Most people on our plane were fine; we did only 10 parabolas. Me? That was about two too many.
After head-butting that poor bastard, I wasn't feeling so hot. Neither was the Dallas Observer's photographer, Mark Graham. He didn't really want to do this in the first place, but I guilt-tripped him into it. Poor Mark--whenever one of these kooky column ideas comes into my head (wing eating, yoga with dancers, basketball against the Mavs coaches) he's the one they tap to shoot the pics. Shortly before takeoff I asked him if he hated me for making him do this. He didn't miss a step: "I never liked you in the first place, so what's the difference?"
Neither Mark nor I lost it on the plane. But even after we returned to Love Field, I didn't feel quite right. There was a reception replete with food and drinks and little parting gifts. I didn't eat. Mark came over and asked if I'd do it again. I said that I had a great time, but I wasn't so sure that they'd get me up there for another go-around, because I wasn't feeling so great.
"Yeah, you don't look like you have much color," Mark said.
I am Johnny BootBoy.