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What is Weightlessness and why is it Important for Spaceflight?

By Brienna Rommes

Weightlessness is the total absence of any sensation of weight or any external force on your body. You ‘float’ freely.

“It’s a very deceiving and magical chaos”

my trainee explains to me after her first weightless flight experience.

“Your mind can’t seem to grasp what is happening and you instinctively try to swim, kick, and grasp frantically for something – ANYTHING to touch to give you back the comforting (gravity) feeling of being back on Earth with Earth’s gravity. It’s the most unusual feeling!”

I nod my head in total agreement. It’s an indescribable sensation unless you’ve done it. Brienna Rommes has flown now on 208 parabolas. She says:

“for me personally, it has taken several sets of weightless parabolas (multiple aircraft flights) in order for my body and mind to finally grasp what is happening and how I need to respond and move around in this strange, unusual environment. The gravity (G’s) are higher than Earth’s (during every pull-up maneuver) and its a serious struggle to move around. Then the G’s come off and you’re weightless and there is NO force impacting your body and you just float out of control crashing into people until, thankfully, the walls of the aircraft and its hand-railings give you something to finally grasp. But over time, you learn how to walk in high G and move your head around without nausea, as well as how to ‘glide’ about the cabin (modified and padded interior of a weightless aircraft) and in-between others while weightless by keeping your body parts in and not flailing or kicking someone (which happens all the time).”

It seems very obvious that weightlessness exposure is essential for anyone thinking about going into space. There are so many nuances your body and mind need to experience and process to be able to fully maximize your time in space (and not kick your crewmates!). Many people ask me how weightless is created and if it can be created on Earth, in other words, “is there a weightless room”?

No. There is no magic room – at least not yet. Microgravity or weightlessness for us Earthlings is done by using an aircraft. The best explanation I ever got on how a weightless environment is created went something like this:

“An aircraft is our best tool to create weightlessness. Essentially, you sit in a hollowed-out and padded aircraft. The aircraft pulls up sharply, then as the nose pitches over, both you and the aircraft ‘fall’ together for a brief period of time (22-24 seconds) before the aircraft ‘catches you’ and begins to climb upward again. This is a parabola.”

Multiple parabolas (typically 16) are done in a series to give you multiple weightless exposures in one flight experience. ZeroG Corporation explains the weightless flight process as the following: The weightless flights start with the “aircraft flying level with the horizon at an altitude of 24,000 feet. The four pilots then gradually increase the angle of the aircraft to about 45° relative to the horizon until reaching an altitude of 32,000 feet. During this phase, passengers feel the pull of 1.8 Gs. Next, the plane pushes over the top of the parabolic arc and the zero-gravity phase begins. For the next 20-30 seconds, everything in the plane is weightless. Finally, the plane gently pulls out of the maneuver, allowing flyers to gradually return to the floor of the aircraft. The maneuver is flown 15 [to 16] times over the course of the flight, each taking about ten miles of airspace to perform. In addition to zero gravity, flyers aboard G-FORCE ONE experience Lunar gravity (one sixth your weight) and Martian gravity (one third your weight), achieved by flying a wider arc over the top of the parabola. On a typical flight, parabolas are flown in sets of three to five, with short periods of level flight between each set.”

It is truly an unusual but exhilarating experience. And like any unusual experience, the body and mind (and perhaps the soul, too) will take a bit of time to comprehend what is happening. For anyone thinking about going into space, a weightless flight experience seems a logical choice. And for those wishing to keep feet firmly on the Earth, I still recommend it as this could be a mini ‘taste’ of what astronauts feel in space – a great addition to anyone’s birthday or bucket list!