LAS VEGAS -- Zero Gravity Corp. inaugurated service to Las Vegas April 21, the latest step in the company's quest to give the average citizen the opportunity to experience weightlessness the same way astronauts in training and in spaceflight do.

"It's a once in a lifetime experience here in a town where people expect a once-in-a-lifetime experience," Peter Diamandis, Zero G's chief executive officer and co-founder, said here during an April 23 pre-flight briefing for more than two-dozen customers decked out in flight suits for their ride.

"This is a fun and gentle experience. When you're up there it's almost Zen-like ... not a roller coaster ride. So don't be nervous," he told them as they prepared to board the airplane that would take them on a series of parabolic maneuvers that are used to create brief periods of weightlessness, not unlike what astronauts aboard the international space station experience full time.

Zero-G's specially modified Boeing 727-200 aircraft -- G-Force One -- offers paying customers a largely empty fuselage that becomes a padded playground as the plane runs through its routine -- climbing and diving maneuvers that simulate the microgravity that astronauts experience.  Flight operations are being conducted from Signature Air Terminal here at McCarran International Airport.

"Basically, one of my goals with Zero-G has been to make the experience of weightlessness available to the broader general public," Diamandis said in an earlier, April 17 phone interview. "That means getting it out of the realm of just the space enthusiast and allowing the public to more directly participate in space ... to broaden the base of supporters."

Diamandis said his company since its formation in late 2004 has flown more than 100 flights, carrying more than 2,500 individuals. Over that period of time, five key markets have evolved and are being addressed by Zero-G: general public travel, corporate incentive flights, educator and student participants, television and movie production support, and private and government research flights.

"It took us 11 years to get our approvals in place and to get operational," Diamandis said. Zero-G now has one dedicated airplane and one part-time access to another aircraft as backup. The firm is planning to add a second dedicated aircraft in about a year's time, he said.

"Our game plan is that we hope the business picks up," Diamandis said, "and we hope to capture NASA's business as well. We're also looking at operations overseas, with interest for getting flight operations going in Singapore and Dubai."

Diamandis said that on the order of $20 million in private funds has been invested in Zero-G to date.

Zero-G has recently purchased a Boeing 727 aircraft, said Noah McMahon, chief marketing officer of the company. "We are in the midst of taking that airplane and making it the perfect parabolic flight aircraft," he said.

While NASA has flown microgravity research flights for about 50 years, very few civilians have been exposed to the experience, McMahon said.

What space shuttle astronauts experience in Earth orbit was likened to a Zero-G flight. "The only issue is that we only get about 30 seconds at a time, we don't get to be up there for a few days. What you'll be experiencing today is real ... it's exactly what astronauts experience," McMahon advised before aircraft takeoff.

A skilled flight crew puts the plane in carefully controlled ascent and descent maneuvers of the plane, with customers first experiencing Mars gravity (one-third Earth's pull), followed by lunar gravity (one-sixth Earth's gravity) and then zero gravity.

Consumer marketing

The gradations of gravity help participants gradually adapt to the experience. That gradual conditioning and the positioning of clients during the plane's maneuvers help minimize a person's susceptibility of motion sickness. A very light dosage of medication also is available to participants.

"We've knocked motion sickness down to a point where it's not a concern," Diamandis said.

Within three designated zones inside the aircraft, flight groups are broken into teams and assigned coaches to help maximize a customer's microgravity experience.

Last month, Zero-G established a relationship with the Sharper Image Corp. to exclusively market and sell seats on its public flights. Starting May 15, reservations for seats on the Zero-G Experience will be made available through Sharper Image's specialty retail stores and via the company's monthly consumer catalog.

Offered at a price of $3,500 per seat plus tax, those taking part in a 90-minute period experience 15 parabolas, as well as take home items like their flight suit, photographs and a DVD of their encounter with microgravity. Charter flights cost $115,000 and fly up to 35 people.

Zero-G also has regularly scheduled flights from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Entree into the next frontier

The first official public flight from Las Vegas was April 21, followed by an April 23 VIP/media day.

To celebrate the start of Zero-G operations from Las Vegas, the private VIP flight carried such notables as Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, as well as key Las Vegas casino executives, including entertainer Raymond Teller [he goes only by his last name on stage] of the magic and comedy team, Penn and Teller.

In post-flight festivities, customer satisfaction was evident.

"It was one of the most exciting, exhilarating and un-duplicatable experiences that I can imagine," said Felix Rappaport, president of Luxor Hotel and Casino in a post-flight interview. "No matter how much video you see ... no matter how much people describe it ... until you are there you can't describe the exhilaration," he told Space News.

Writer Stefanie Michaels, Los Angeles-based author of the "Adventure Girl" series of books and senior travel editor with Affluent magazine, admitted to closet astronaut status.

"It was more than I thought I could experience," she said, "and I didn't have to become a scientist or go through all that NASA training. For me, this is the next generation, my first entree into the next frontier."

Currently, future Zero-G flights out of Las Vegas are slated for the following dates: May 26; June 16, 17 and 30; August 4; September 1 and 2; October 6; November 10; and December 30 and 31.