Commercial Zero-Gravity Flights Begin in Las Vegas

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

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

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

Zero-G'sspecially modified Boeing 727-200 aircraft -- G-Force One -- offers payingcustomers a largely empty fuselage that becomes a padded playground as theplane runs through its routine -- climbing and diving maneuvers that simulatethe microgravity that astronauts experience.  Flight operations are beingconducted from Signature Air Terminal here at McCarran International Airport.

"Basically,one of my goals with Zero-G has been to make the experience of weightlessnessavailable to the broader general public," Diamandissaid in an earlier, April 17 phone interview. "That means getting it outof the realm of just the space enthusiast and allowing the public to moredirectly participate in space ... to broaden the base of supporters."

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

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

"Ourgame plan is that we hope the business picks up," Diamandissaid, "and we hope to capture NASA's business as well. We're also lookingat 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 hasbeen invested in Zero-G to date.

Zero-Ghas recently purchased a Boeing 727 aircraft, said Noah McMahon, chiefmarketing officer of the company. "We are in the midst of taking thatairplane and making it the perfect parabolic flight aircraft," he said.

WhileNASA has flown microgravity research flights for about 50 years, very fewcivilians have been exposed to the experience, McMahon said.

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

Askilled flight crew puts the plane in carefully controlled ascent and descentmaneuvers 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.

Consumermarketing

Thegradations of gravity help participants gradually adapt to the experience. Thatgradual conditioning and the positioning of clients during the plane'smaneuvers help minimize a person's susceptibility of motion sickness. Avery light dosage of medication also is available to participants.

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

Withinthree designated zones inside the aircraft, flight groups are broken into teamsand assigned coaches to help maximize a customer's microgravity experience.

Lastmonth, Zero-G established a relationship with the Sharper Image Corp. toexclusively market and sell seats on its public flights. Starting May 15,reservations for seats on the Zero-G Experience will be made available throughSharper Image's specialty retail stores and via the company's monthly consumercatalog.

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

Zero-Galso has regularly scheduled flights from the KennedySpace Centerin Florida.

Entreeinto the next frontier

Thefirst official public flight from Las Vegas was April 21, followed by an April 23 VIP/mediaday.

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

Inpost-flight festivities, customer satisfaction was evident.

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

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

"Itwas more than I thought I could experience," she said, "and I didn'thave to become a scientist or go through all that NASA training. For me, thisis 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: May26; June 16, 17 and 30; August 4; September 1 and 2; October 6; November 10;and December 30 and 31.

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