Vomit Comet: What Hawking Can Expect

British cosmologist and gravity guru Stephen Hawking will be living every space geek’s dream when he gets his first taste of zero gravity. The wheelchair-bound author of best sellers like “A Brief History of Time” is planning to fly weightless aboard the Zero Gravity Corp.’s specially modified G-Force One airplane, better known as the Vomit Comet, in April. It’s an experience that’s open to anyone who can afford the $3,500 ticket price and isn’t put off by the somewhat unappealing name. What will Hawking’s flight be like?  According to Zero Gravity Corp.’s chairman and CEO, Dr. Peter H. Diamandis, it’s a “Zen-like” experience that leaves everybody laughing—and very few puking. Diamandis spoke to NEWSWEEK’s Alexandra Gekas. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What type of craft do you use?
Peter Diamandis: We started operation in late 2004 and up until recently we modified two 727-200 airplanes that we were using on a part-time basis. But because the business has been growing, we purchased one of the two so we have a full-time dedicated airplane.

What does the plane look like?
We have done extensive modifications to the plane to make it safe and also to modify the interior to make it a beautiful zero-gravity flight, so it has a high-end sound system and lighting. You board at the rear of the airplane where we have 35 seats and then the forward three quarters of the airplane are 80 linear feet of open floating area, no bins, no obstructions just open space.

How do people prepare for the flight?
You book in advance and show up the day of the flight. There’s about an hour of ground training to get ready for the flight and decide what you want to do, if you want to drink water or eat M&Ms or do flips in the air. We then go to the runway and you board the airplane with a boarding pass. Take off and landing is like a normal airplane except everyone is a lot more excited. Beforehand we serve them a light meal, low in carbohydrates and no sodas and we offer the customers a light medication to reduce any chance of motion sickness, if they wish. Otherwise, pretty much anybody who can go on a roller-coaster ride, which is much more of an issue than zero-g, can do this.

At what altitude do you go to zero gravity?
It takes about 20 to 30 minutes to get into the block of dedicated airspace that the FAA gives us, which is 100 miles long, 10 miles wide and 20,000 feet high. The block of airspace goes from an altitude of 15,000 to 35,000 feet. We have this airspace and we take the airplane to the initial attitude of 24,000 feet when everyone gets out of his or her seat. There are three teams of about 11 people and the airplane is broken up into three zones: a green, a yellow and a blue zone. Everyone lies down on the padded floor in the floating zone and the airplane pulls up into a 45-degree angle. In the floating zone there are no windows so when the airplane pulls up into a 45-degree angle you feel yourself getting heavier and then the plane pushes over the top of the curve and everyone gets lighter and lighter until they start floating. You have no inkling at all that the plane is tipping—you just get lighter until you’re floating. It’s not like a roller-coaster ride where your stomach goes up and down. It’s a very enjoyable, Zen-like experience and everyone is laughing.

How long do people stay in zero gravity?
We do 15 parabolas over the flight. The first we do is a Martian parabola. You go from your weight to one third of your weight, which is gravity on Mars, so if you weigh 120 pounds you would weigh 40 pounds. You can do one-handed pushups you can stand on your hands, you feel like a superperson. Then we do four lunar parabolas where you weigh one sixth of your weight. Imagine you’ve got all of your strength but you weigh 20 pounds. You can do back flips, front flips, you can dive through the air but you have enough weight where you can recover and stand on your feet and push again to do the next maneuver. Then we do 10 zero-gravity parabolas and those are tremendously fun because you actually are completely weightless and you float in the middle of the cabin. We break it up so we do three or four parabolas in a row and then we have a period of straight and level flight where people can stand up and get some tricks or things they want to play with during their next parabola.

What types of tricks and games do people play?
So for one parabola we have them select someone from their group to pay catch with, if you saw Martha Stewart, she grabbed her knees into a ball and we played catch with her. If there are a couple of kids with their mom and dad we’ll have the mom or dad be the ball and we’ll throw them around. We [also] play with water and you’ll see it floating in front of you and literally drink it out of the air.

How bumpy of a transition is it from level flight to zero gravity?
It’s a very gradual transition from high gravity to zero gravity and back to high gravity. There’s no shaking, everyone is giggling and smiling.

What does it feel like?
You go from quick weight loss to quick weight gain. You’re lying on the ground so people describe it as pleasant, but it isn’t bothersome at all. You just don’t have a frame of reference for being weightless unless you’ve done it. It’s not like floating in water or lying down. You dream about it, it’s hard to describe.

How are the pilots trained for your flights?
They’re specially trained pilots. The ability to fly zero gravity is not difficult, it’s just the ability to do it very smoothly and precisely so you want to have the zero-g portion go as long and as smoothly as possible.

So honestly, why is it called a Vomit Comet?
That’s a bad name that NASA gave the airplanes. When NASA flies zero gravity they don’t care about how the people are onboard, all they care about is doing the experiment. They typically will do 40 to 50 or as many as 80 parabolas so they have a significant number of people who get motion sick. We’ve gotten the motion sickness down to one out of 100 people, so it really is something that is not much of an issue.

If someone gets sick is there vomit floating around?
We have a motion sick bag, and we’ve had a few people get motion sick in the bag, but it’s no different than a normal airliner. I’m a medical doctor and I did my research in motion sickness, and one of the things I did was to figure out how to reduce motion sickness. The only thing you have to worry about is if you squeeze some water out of your water bottle and don’t drink it, it might splash somebody.

How will the flight account for Stephen Hawking’s disability?
He has Lou Gehrig's disease so this will be a very special flight that is dedicated really to him. On board we’re going to have three doctors, we’re also going to have four specially trained handlers or coaches. He flies on commercial planes all the time so we will board and disembark him like he does whenever he flies. He will be seated in one of the 35 seats in the back and when we get to the block of airspace he will be hand carried by his special handlers to the floating zone, where he will be put down to lay on his back. He will not be on a wheelchair and we will do one parabola at a time instead of groups.

How will he control himself during zero gravity?
He will be put on the floor and he will be allowed to float off the ground. We will have one handler for each of his limbs and when gravity returns after the 20 to 30 seconds he will be gently brought to the ground and made sure he is lying on his back and we will assess it and do it again.

What prompted you to start the Zero Gravity Corp.?
My goal here is to make weightlessness available for the public. My model is to do for space what Jacques Cousteau did for the ocean—when he created scuba diving, he made the ocean available to everybody. Our mission is to make the weightlessness of spaceflight available to everyone from 10-year-olds to octogenarians.