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Family Aims High for Ultimate 4th of July Vacation: Zero Gravity Flight

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.
(Image: © Stern Family)

Thisstory was updated at 7:24 p.m. ET.

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

Manychildren go through a phase in their lives when they want to become anastronaut to see what it feels like to fly in space. It wasn?t long ago that Iwas one of those starry-eyed kids and little did I know that I would get theopportunity of a lifetime to feelweightlessness before I even turned 23. 

Asa political journalist, I spend the majority of my time following stories withfascinating characters and complex storylines chock-full of melodrama and powerstruggles. However, I must say that this has to be one of the coolestassignments I will ever have in my career. 

Itcame about through my father, (planetaryscientist Alan Stern), a space scientist and has been on at least a dozenweightless flights, who is leading a project at the Southwest ResearchInstitute on the science uses for weightless flights and suborbital spacecraft.

Traininglike an astronaut

Whileexperiencing 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 zerogravity flights for decades, and commercial flights have been open to thegeneral public since 2004. 

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

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

Wewill board onto a Boeing 727 that has been modified to endure a series of parabolas. Throughthe course of 12 to 15 parabolas, the plane will go soaring up to an altitudeof 34,000 feet only to begin the precipitous 10,000-foot dive, which grants us30-second periods where we are allowed to float about the cabin freely.

Asa first time flier and perpetually nauseous person, I won?t lie that I am a bitnervous about taking a ride on a weightless flight, especially since NASA'soriginal plane that flew them was nicknamed the ?VomitComet.? 

Sincemy father is the resident expert in our family, he told me that throwing up canbe avoided for the most part by taking motion sickness medicine and abstainingfrom drinking.

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

Iam strangely comforted by the fact that domestic diva Martha Stewart even tooka Zero-G flight. I figure if the queen of decorative desserts can avoidtossing her cookies, I can too. However, trying not to get sick is only thefirst (though arguably most important) component of my assignment whileonboard.

Homeworkin zero gravity

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

Thecondition for going on this unique family vacation is that my siblings and Imust each create an experiment to conduct in zero gravity. Since it would be abit clich? to try to drink Tang while in flight (arguably the best productplacement in the history of advertising), we were forced to come up with morecreative ideas. 

My16-year-old brother, Jordan, hoped to bring a pair of magnets in his flightsuit and see if they act the same way as they normally do. I hoped to blowbubbles and see whether they pop at a faster or slower rate than usual. Interestinglyenough, 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 hisfirst foray into aerospace engineering: paper airplanes.

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

Theseinclude some zero gravity antics with a hula hoop, and density experiments withliquids and solids that use cooking oil, colored water and a jar full of treatslike jelly beans, gum balls and rock candies.

Whilecelebrities and adrenaline junkies alike are signing up to get onboard G ForceOne, the space tourism industry is only in its infancy. In the near future,suborbital flights will allow for both passengers and researchers to leaveearth to experience zerogravity for longer than 30-second intervals.  For many people, goingto outer space will no longer have to be a pipe dream; it will be areality.     

Spacetourism wasn?t close to a realistic family travel plan when my parents met inan aviation class in college.

Butif 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 30years after they met, we find ourselves about to take off on a journey thatwill leave us both weightless and breathless.

SarahStern is the editor of the political blog New Era News, oldest daughter ofplanetary scientist Alan Stern and a freelance writer living in Boulder, Colo.This article was written for SPACE.com. VisitSPACE.com Monday, July 5 to read the Stern family's reaction to its zerogravity family vacation.

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