Zero-G Trip - Orlando, Florida

Hi all,

I thought I'd write a bit about the opportunity I had recently to experience zero gravity aboard a parabolic flight.
This is a little overdue, but after missing a week of class for this project, my life got sucked into survival mode of catching up on work and then immediately preparing for midterm exams. It got a bit interesting at times, but I made it though! Now that I have a week off for fall break, I finally have a little bit of time to catch up on the backlog of academic and non-academic tasks I need to accomplish, and making a record of this trip is one of them. I'll probably go back and polish the writing in this post when I get a chance, but I wanted to get it all down while the memory is recent.

So, anyway, over the summer, along with one of my classmates, I applied to a competition hosted by the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) in which we had to propose an experiment to be performed in zero gravity. The top 15 competition winners would get to implement their experiment on a parabolic flight, along with several aerospace engineers from MBRSC. After an interview and plenty of emails back and forth to ensure that our experiment met the safety requirements for zero gravity, we had the honor of being selected as one of the participating teams.

We were in an Arabic newspaper
From Sept 29 to Oct 6, we were given an all-expenses-paid educational trip to Orlando, Florida, in which we had scientific discussions, visited science museums and the Kennedy Space Center, made plenty of fun memories, and ultimately experienced the parabolic flight. This was a truly life-changing trip, and I will forever be grateful for the opportunity I had to work with such inspiring peers and mentors.

My roommate for the trip, an aerospace engineering student from Khalifa University

MBRSC engineers along with some other students

Most people I've told about this haven't really heard of parabolic flight (a.k.a. "the vomit comet" for its tendency to produce motion sickness), so I'll explain a little bit about what it is. You know the moment of weightlessness you get at the top of a roller coaster hill before plummeting down again? This is the same concept, but with giant hills that are made by a plane flying in a parabolic trajectory.

Parabolic flight path
The plane flies up and down again and again in this motion, and with each cycle, the passengers experience about 30 seconds of zero gravity, immediately followed by 30 seconds of 2-G (twice Earth gravity). These flights are used to train astronauts, but since then they've also become a tool for scientific research, filming movies and music videos, and even for ordinary tourists. For this flight, they started out by reducing the gravity gradually on each parabola, with 3 rounds of "Mars gravity", followed by 3 more rounds of "Lunar gravity", and then 19 rounds of zero gravity, for a total of 25 rounds, 30 seconds each.

Before the flight, we had two days to prepare our experiment and go through training. Everything had to be velcroed down to the floor of the aircraft so that it wouldn't float away during flight. Some teams with heavier experiments had to bolt their setup to the floor. We also had straps placed on the floor so that we could anchor ourselves to strategic locations when we needed to. We had to watch a safety video that explained what to expect on the flight. We also got our flight jumpsuits and made sure everything fit right. The flight staff also had to run electrical safety tests to ensure that the research equipment wouldn't interfere with aircraft operations.

Visiting the airport for the experiment preparation phase

The inside of the aircraft before lights were turned on

Setting up our stuff inside the aircraft

As for the experiment, my partner and I were investigating the effect of zero gravity on muscle contraction, so we used electromyography (EMG) sensors and Kinect Skeleton tracking to monitor him as he performed different movements in zero-g, compared to on earth. I managed the laptops and data collection during the experiment. It turns out that things are a little chaotic and it's pretty hard to make controlled movements in zero-g, but we did get some interesting data and we're going to go through it more over the course of the semester. If I had the chance to do it again, I would definitely implement an experiment that can be kept in a self-contained system and work on its own, rather than something that requires a lot of movements/input on the part of the researchers. After we collected the data, we also had some time to enjoy zero-g.

We even had boarding passes and had to go through "airport security", which was basically a single metal detector and luggage scanner on the tarmac.
Pre-flight team photos/preparations

After we boarded the plane, we did one last quick equipment check, and then we were ready to go. The rear 1/3 of the aircraft had normal seats in it, and we had to be seated for what was a normal take-off, with all the FAA safety instructions and everything. Once we reached the designated airspace for the parabolas, we were allowed to get out of our seats and walk to the area where our equipment was set up. My heart was pounding with anticipation.

We were encouraged to lie down for the 2-G portions in order to minimize motion sickness, because moving your head around too much during 2-G can disrupt your body's sense of balance. However, I also spent some of the 2-G intervals sitting still on the floor.

My "game face" getting ready for 2G
Anyway, we entered the first 2-G interval, and the way it feels is like your body is being pressed into the floor all over by this invisible weight. Other people said it feels like someone is sitting on your chest, and I guess that's pretty accurate. I remember I kept lifting my hand up and just watching it fall back down as soon as I stopped trying to lift it. It was a crazy feeling, just sitting there staring at my hands. Moving my legs felt weird too- the only way I can describe it is like my legs had been replaced by giant wooden logs, stiff and heavy to move. Moving my head felt wrong somehow too. I could move around just fine though, it's just that with every movement I could feel the extra force pulling me toward the ground.

As soon as I had gotten past that feeling, the flight crew shouted a warning that we were about to enter the parabola.

During Mars and Lunar gravity, the "warm-up" to zero-g, I was looking at the laptops and just bouncing up and down again and again. It was so weird- only the tiniest jump could get you so high, so I had to make light movements to avoid just jumping and immediately crashing into the roof of the plane. After jumping up, you would just kind of lightly float back down instead of falling. It was so exhilarating. I just remember smiling so wide like a child and just looking around at everyone.

It didn't feel like the plane was tilting up and down much, either. My whole sense of "up" and "down" was relative to the floor and roof of the aircraft.

At the end of each 30 seconds, as we came out of the parabola, the flight crew would yell "feet down, coming out!" and then we had to quickly make sure we were in a good position, because gravity would rush back and we would soon float to the floor for the next 2-G. The floor and walls of the aircraft were padded, so it wasn't too bad, but you still had to pay attention or else you would land in a weird position.

Zero-G was just incredible. As soon as we entered each parabola, we all just naturally floated off the floor in whatever position we were in. It was so hard to control where you are going, though! The tiniest push off the ground would send you flying. A lot of people's first instinct is to swim, because the weightlessness feels a little like being underwater, but there's no water to push out of the way, so you end up just flailing your arms around and kicking the people around you and not getting anywhere, haha. Everyone was crashing into each other and it was kind of chaotic but so much fun. After we managed to collect some data, I did back-flips and was playing with some tennis balls from one girl's experiment (which kept randomly floating away) and a frisbee that another girl brought. We could also throw each other around, so if you were touching the floor or wall and a person came crashing into you, you could grab them and throw them away from you. I did some back-flips as well, and it was amazing because once you're upside-down, you don't feel like you're upside-down anymore. It felt so freeing to be floating there. We were all smiling, laughing, and cheering with every parabola.

I'm usually not one to get motion sickness- I don't really get carsick, seasick, no problem with roller coasters, etc., but about halfway through I started feeling pretty queasy. The parabolic flight isn't uncomfortable, but I think there's something about it that just feels super unnatural, especially the transition from 2-G into zero; it kind of makes your stomach turn. They gave us those paper bags to keep inside our flight suit pocket "just in case", and let's just say that I definitely found out firsthand why it's called the vomit comet. But I recovered quick and managed to enjoy the second half of the flight! I think about 1/4 of the group ended up pretty sick and puking by the end, and the rest were mostly fine, so I guess it all depends. Personally, I probably should have followed the advice to stay still during 2-G, because I was working on my laptop watching the data collection and everything, and I think trying to read during 2-G ended up making me nauseous. But the photographers and flight crew must have stomachs of steel! They do this all the time and were completely unfazed.

Floating around in zero-g was a feeling that I will definitely never forget. It would be such a dream to live in zero-g for an extended period of time on the International Space Station. Anyway, the 25 parabolas were over way too soon, and we returned to our seats for the descent.

My official certificate 
For the rest of the day, I kept feeling like I was floating, sort of like that feeling when you get off a boat and everything is still rocking. It was so incredible and I just wish I could do it again now that I know what to expect.


The official highlight reel from MBRSC:

Some lower-quality videos from people's phones and go-pro's:

Anyway, that's it for now.

Hope you are all happy and healthy!