Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Cash-strapped? Try the poor man's space travel with a parabolic flight

updated 12:03 PM EDT, Fri August 16, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Last March, Novespace started selling seats on their "zero-gravity" flights.
  • Planes that follow a parabolic flight path can mimic the feeling of entering a gravity-free zone.
  • Tickets cost $7,932 (cheaper than $250,000 for a seat on Virgin Galactic).
  • The flights are popular with scientists and astronauts-in-training.

(CNN) -- Part of the imagined charms of space flight is not just the view from the window. It is also the thrill of breaking the shackles of gravity and free-floating. Now taking a break from Newton's laws is easier (and cheaper) than ever.

For years, the European Space Agency (ESA) has used a Novespace-owned Airbus to run parabolic, aka "zero-gravity" flights for scientists and astronauts-in-training. Last March, Novespace started selling seats to the general public for a relatively reasonable $7,932.

"I've been doing this for 20 years, and every flight, there's always this 'wow' impression," says Vladimir Pletser, the parabolic flight manager at the ESA, and a Guinness record holder for most aircraft flown in parabola. "It's like you get born again in a new environment. Words are not enough to describe it. You have to live it."

"Zero-gravity" is a bit of a misnomer, as the Zero-G -- the Airbus A300 that performs the missions -- never leaves Earth's orbit.

Rather, the weightless feeling is a result of the plane's parabolic flight path. The aircraft shoots up at a 47-degree angle at full engine thrust -- at which point everything inside the plane experiences hypergravity, and is heavier. The thrust is then reduced, and the plane is allowed to experience free fall, allowing everything inside to become weightless.

Amazing feats of science: Trying to work On board the \
Amazing feats of science: Trying to work On board the "vomit comet"

"Gravity does not disappear, but we are in a state of freefall," explains Pletser. "With respect to the environment, which is the cabin, your weight will be zero. It's absolute magic."

It's like you get born again in a new environment. Words are not enough to describe it. You have to live it.
Vladimir Pletser, ESA

Magical though it may be, the experience lasts a mere 20 seconds. To draw out the experience, the Zero-G needs to thrust up and fall down in a series of 30 parabolas (it's no wonder it's nicknamed the "vomit comet.")

The Zero-G has not abandoned its main purpose, however, which is to provide a handy gravity-free environment for scientists to conduct experiments.

"It is a beautiful opportunity," notes Jean-Louis Thonnard, a professor at Belgium's Université Catholique de Louvain who is researching gravity's effect on upper-body movement.

"By studying the manipulation of objects in different gravity fields, we understand how important gravity is on Earth," he explains. "We are gravity dependent."

Sticking a scientist on a parabolic flight is considerably cheaper than sending them to the International Space Station, and many of the world's top space centers use Zero-G as a venue for the early stages of experimentation. It's no surprise that a lot of the research is space-themed.

The Zero-G shoots up at a 47-degree angle at full engine thrust.
The Zero-G shoots up at a 47-degree angle at full engine thrust.

The International Space University in Strasbourg, for instance, is researching how gravity affects our everyday perception of objects in terms of weight and density. According to Leonardo Surdo, a researcher at the university, studies show that on Earth, when people are presented with two balls of equal weight, they will mistakenly assume the smaller one is heavier. This is known as size-mass illusion.

Read more: Google explores the Airbus A380

"In microgravity, we don't have weight, just mass. It gives us the opportunity to see what the mechanism is underlying this illusion," says Surdo. In terms of real-world application, the experiment can help prevent accidents in space.

"We don't want astronauts to take different objects and smash them," he says.

According to Pletser, allowing the public to board the plane is partly an educational enterprise. By interacting with scientists, they're able to better grasp the affects of microgravity.

"It allows them to have an experience of zero gravity, and to see what it's good for," he says.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 10:12 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Imagine you're a hotel company with a score of brands that seem, well, dated. All the flash amenities of yesteryear seem irrelevant today.
updated 12:14 AM EDT, Tue April 8, 2014
The European firm has unveiled how passengers flying on its new A350 XWB might travel.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Wed March 26, 2014
Would you pay to cut in line for the toilets on a flight?
updated 9:18 PM EST, Tue March 4, 2014
Concorde is a thing of the past, but a number of companies are racing to release the first supersonic business jet.
updated 9:22 PM EST, Sun March 2, 2014
Though we're still in the early stages of 2014, it is already proving one of the most expensive years for the travel industry.
updated 12:15 PM EST, Tue March 4, 2014
At $83,200 a night, the Royal Penthouse Suite at Geneva's Hotel President Wilson is the most expensive hotel room in the world.
updated 10:48 PM EST, Sun February 16, 2014
From 'ascending rooms' and mini-bars to pillow menus and iPad-controls, discover the evolution of hotel room amenities.
updated 11:12 AM EST, Mon February 17, 2014
There's a new group of travelers in town -- and it hardly matters which town you're talking about.
updated 11:57 PM EST, Wed February 12, 2014
It's Boeing vs. Airbus as the heavy-weight plane makers face off at the Singapore airshow.
updated 9:03 PM EST, Sun February 9, 2014
How airlines are making in-flight maps more interactive and monetizing them.
updated 8:03 PM EST, Mon February 3, 2014
What do new planes have to endure during cold weather testing?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT