Family Aims High for Ultimate 4th of July Vacation: Zero Gravity Flight
Kate and Jordan Stern, two of the three children of planetary scientist Alan Stern, pose for a photo during a family vacation. The Stern family is taking a zero gravity vacation on July 4, 2010.
Credit: Stern Family

This story was updated at 7:24 p.m. ET.

It?s about to be the Fourth of July and I am going on a family vacation to the nation?s capitol.  This time around, we will not be going to the usual tourist destinations. Instead, we are taking a giant leap into the world of space tourism: All five of us will be spending our Independence Day suspended in gravity as we embark on our first family Zero-G trip.

Many children go through a phase in their lives when they want to become an astronaut to see what it feels like to fly in space. It wasn?t long ago that I was one of those starry-eyed kids and little did I know that I would get the opportunity of a lifetime to feel weightlessness before I even turned 23. 

As a political journalist, I spend the majority of my time following stories with fascinating characters and complex storylines chock-full of melodrama and power struggles. However, I must say that this has to be one of the coolest assignments I will ever have in my career. 

It came about through my father, (planetary scientist Alan Stern), a space scientist and has been on at least a dozen weightless flights, who is leading a project at the Southwest Research Institute on the science uses for weightless flights and suborbital spacecraft.

Training like an astronaut

While experiencing zero gravity for a vacation may sound like something out of the Jetsons, it is not exactly a new phenomenon. Astronauts have been training on zero gravity flights for decades, and commercial flights have been open to the general public since 2004. 

Currently, the Space Adventures-owned company Zero Gravity Corporation (Zero-G), is the only company approved by the FAA to take passengers on a plane to experience what it feels like to be in outer space. 

We can expect that after our orientation with other passengers that will be joining us for the flight, we will be shuttled to G Force One.

We will board onto a Boeing 727 that has been modified to endure a series of parabolas. Through the course of 12 to 15 parabolas, the plane will go soaring up to an altitude of 34,000 feet only to begin the precipitous 10,000-foot dive, which grants us 30-second periods where we are allowed to float about the cabin freely.

As a first time flier and perpetually nauseous person, I won?t lie that I am a bit nervous about taking a ride on a weightless flight, especially since NASA's original plane that flew them was nicknamed the ?Vomit Comet.? 

Since my father is the resident expert in our family, he told me that throwing up can be avoided for the most part by taking motion sickness medicine and abstaining from drinking.

Nonetheless, the very thought of puking in a weightless environment with 35 other people is enough to make my stomach flip even as I stand on solid ground.

I am strangely comforted by the fact that domestic diva Martha Stewart even took a Zero-G flight. I figure if the queen of decorative desserts can avoid tossing her cookies, I can too. However, trying not to get sick is only the first (though arguably most important) component of my assignment while onboard.

Homework in zero gravity

Naturally, my dad will not let an educational opportunity be wasted giggling and doing somersaults. 

The condition for going on this unique family vacation is that my siblings and I must each create an experiment to conduct in zero gravity. Since it would be a bit clich? to try to drink Tang while in flight (arguably the best product placement in the history of advertising), we were forced to come up with more creative ideas. 

My 16-year-old brother, Jordan, hoped to bring a pair of magnets in his flight suit and see if they act the same way as they normally do. I hoped to blow bubbles and see whether they pop at a faster or slower rate than usual. Interestingly enough, my father, who has spent his entire career working to get projects, people and payloads to fly in space, wanted to bring along a replica of his first foray into aerospace engineering: paper airplanes.

However, we did not submit our plans early enough to flight organizers to have the gear needed for our experiments approved. But we will have a chance to participate in some other experiments already planned for our section of G Force One.

These include some zero gravity antics with a hula hoop, and density experiments with liquids and solids that use cooking oil, colored water and a jar full of treats like jelly beans, gum balls and rock candies.

While celebrities and adrenaline junkies alike are signing up to get onboard G Force One, the space tourism industry is only in its infancy. In the near future, suborbital flights will allow for both passengers and researchers to leave earth to experience zero gravity for longer than 30-second intervals.  For many people, going to outer space will no longer have to be a pipe dream; it will be a reality.     

Space tourism wasn?t close to a realistic family travel plan when my parents met in an aviation class in college.

But if it weren?t for their mutual interest in flying and thrill-seeking hobbies, there?s a good chance our family wouldn?t exist. So it?s only fitting that 30 years after they met, we find ourselves about to take off on a journey that will leave us both weightless and breathless.

Sarah Stern is the editor of the political blog New Era News, oldest daughter of planetary scientist Alan Stern and a freelance writer living in Boulder, Colo. This article was written for Visit Monday, July 5 to read the Stern family's reaction to its zero gravity family vacation.