Zero Gravity Games: Things To Do in a Spacecraft When You're Weightless
Commercial space training isn't all about research. Sometimes -- especially when the gravity is out -- the crew gets to cut loose.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a book called Conversational Astronaut Training that describes what it has been like for me to train for a commercial space mission.
Recently, I received an e-mail from someone asking about an offhand comment I made in the book (which you can download here for free). I had written something along the lines of, "One of the most difficult things about being weightless is the temptation to play." I went on to say that when you are weightless, even the most mundane objects become toys. For example, last fall I floated a copy of my book in zero gravity.
The e-mail asked what other kinds of things I and others have done in zero gravity purely for the sake of amusing ourselves.
My very first time being weightless was back in the '90s while flying parabolas in a small aircraft. Those experiences, while fun, didn't really give me any chance to play around because I had to fly the plane. In 2014, however, I had the opportunity to fly on a parabolic flight as a space tourist.
Anyone can fly on these flights as long as they meet some basic health requirements. These flights aren't cheap, but they are a way for the average person to find out what it's like to be weightless. Because the tourist flights are not part of an astronaut training program, the whole thing is just for fun. I had the opportunity to do things on that flight that I've never had a chance to do on any of the training flights.
Without a doubt, the most fun thing that I tried on that tourist flight was putting myself into a fetal position, then allowing others to throw me from one side of the plane to the other. It was a weird sensation: I was essentially a human volleyball. Even so, it was some of the most fun I've ever had in zero gravity.
I also tried crawling around the circumference of the plane. I started by crawling up the wall, then crawling across the ceiling and down the adjacent wall. It was an interesting sensation, but surprisingly difficult to do because there wasn't a lot to grab onto. Looking back, I probably should have tried to give myself some momentum rather than inching my way along.
Another thing I did on the tourist flight -- which I've been told is something of a tradition -- was to fly like Superman. Several of us lined up at the end of the plane, and when the gravity went away, we kicked off of the bulkhead and floated down the length of the plane in a pose that looked a lot like the way that Superman flies.
During that flight, I was also given the opportunity to try drinking some water. I know that doesn't sound like anything special, but as I said before, even the most mundane objects become toys in zero gravity. When weightless, water forms a free-floating sphere. It's actually possible to drink one of these free-floating globs of water. This was probably the only time in my life that I have ever drank water that was not in a glass or a bottle.
Eating in zero gravity is quite the experience, as well. One of the things I did on the tourist flight was open a bag of peanut butter M&Ms in zero gravity and watch them fly. My original thought was that all of the free-floating, brightly colored candy would look great on video, and that it would give me a chance to experience the sensation of eating in zero gravity.
While well-intentioned, this particular activity actually went a little bit awry.
Depending on the flight profile, the periods of weightlessness that you experience on a parabolic flight typically range in duration from 20 to 30 seconds. In other words, there is a point at which the gravity comes back and you immediately transition from blissfully floating to slamming onto the floor. What I hadn't stopped to think about was that peanut butter M&Ms are relatively soft. When the gravity came back, several of us landed on top of some of the M&Ms, smashing them in the process. By the end of the flight, I had several peanut butter stains on my flight suit.
The zero gravity flights that I have done through the commercial space program are purely for training purposes and for conducting scientific research in weightless environments. Normally, the crew schedules during these flights are jam-packed. There are sometimes dozens of experiments that have to be performed in a span of a couple of hours. There is a lot of pressure to get the experiments done, because there are those who are depending on us to get good results. You just never know when someone's Ph.D. is hanging on their experiment being successfully performed in zero gravity, and that particular flight might be the only opportunity for their experiment to fly.
Needless to say, there isn't a lot of opportunity for playtime on those flights. But that isn't to say that it never happens.
The first parabola of each parabolic flight is usually designated as an acclimation parabola. It's designed to give our bodies a chance to get used to the sensation of being weightless before we have to get to work. Unofficially, however, that parabola is playtime. It has become something of a tradition for the crew members to float mission patches and personal items. For example, my best friend once gave me a Fisher Space Pen prior to one of the flights. I made it a point to float the pen when I had the opportunity. Similarly, my grandmother gave me a toy space shuttle (which I still have) when I was 8 years old. It was an extremely meaningful gift, so it seemed only fitting to float it in zero gravity.
Of course, I'm not the only one who does this sort of thing. One of the crew members is a martial arts expert, and she took the opportunity to float her black belt. Others have floated family photos and other personal mementos.
Most of the time, the first parabola is the only one in which we really get to goof off. Even so, things sometimes happen over the course of the flight that give us an unexpected opportunity to amuse ourselves. For example, I remember one particular flight in which one of the experiments had some problems and was deemed to be unsafe to perform. That malfunction gave me a couple of parabolas during which I did not have any official duties.
Similarly, I was on a flight last fall that was slated to last for 16 parabolas. However, the pilot managed to squeeze in several extra parabolas at the end of the flight, and we ended up doing 22 parabolas instead of 16. The crew ended up using the unscheduled parabolas to have some fun. In addition to floating anything that we could think of to use as a toy, we used one of the extra parabolas to sing happy birthday to someone who is waiting for us on the ground, and to record a get-well greeting for a fellow crew member who was in the hospital due to an accident.
Even though most of the zero gravity parabolas that I have flown have been task-oriented, most of these tasks have felt like playtime. Sometimes we end up passing experiments from one end of the plane to the other (much like throwing a football) in an effort to maximize the experiment's hang time.
The point is that even though I and the other crew members tend to be very busy during zero gravity flights, we always try to make the most of whatever time we get to spend weightless, and to be appreciative whenever we get to steal a few seconds for ourselves.
Brien Posey is a 22-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.