Tag Archive - Vomit Comet

The Space Shuttle’s final race to retirement

Dream of riding on the Space Shuttle into space?  Sorry you’re a bit late as their impending scheduled retirement ends an era. You’re options now will be to perhaps try zero gravity flights on the vomit comet as a way to experience the thrill of weightlessness without going into space or explore the commercial space opportunities that are emerging many headed by well known entrepreneurs who having made their fortune are spending them on trying to open up the next generation of space travel. From Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic who will reach the edge of space to ambitious space access replacements for the shuttle such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX or Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin a handful of companies are trying to push the boundaries and lower the cost of access to space for all.  

The Space Shuttle Endeavour in transit

Space Shuttle Endeavour in transit on special 747 Jumbo

And while the space shuttle will be permanently grounded it does mean you’ll now have the opportunity to see them up close on the ground.  Something that hasn’t been possible while in service, as NASA is offering the remaining three Shuttles (Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour) free to museums willing to house them for visitors to see. This has kicked off a race for institutions to bid for them, backed by intense lobbying and fundraising efforts.  And although the Shuttles come free the cost of getting them to the institution and then storing them isn’t a cheap endeavour. Considering they can only be transported on a special jumbo 747, which must have access to a suitable runway close enough to the museum that the shuttle can then be moved without dismantling into an indoor climate controlled building large enough to house them.  With all that is required many institutions are out of the race before it began! 

It has already been decided that the oldest surviving shuttle, Discovery, will be given to the Smithsonian, whose new facility next to Dulles Airport in Virginia just outside Washington DC meets all the requirements and along with its Washington Mall museum is America’s repository of space history. The Smithsonian currently has on site the training shuttle, Enterprise, which will be given to another museum once it is replaced by Discovery. The Smithsonian is a treasure trove of air and space history and both sites are free to visit and easy to access, see their website www.nasm.si.edu for more details and also definitely don’t miss seeing the Apollo 11 command module.

Shuttle launch profiles.

Space Shuttle launch profiles

And while the Smithsonian gets its Shuttle, museums around the world are still in the race for the others. Where they will end up is still up to NASA so stay tuned. We all probably remember where we were when Challenger and Columbia were destroyed in fatal accidents and the Shuttle fleet has played a large part in inspiring people to explore beyond earth so will be popular attractions once they’ve found their new homes.  At least until commercial space travel has kicked off and we might be seeing the Average Joe on their way to space.

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No Gravity: travel weightless without going into space

Vomitcomet-weightless photo
Image via Wikipedia

Last week I read a post about some very cool photos of a magical world with no gravity created by Nam, a Japanese art collective based in Tokyo.  As the post’s author Diana Adams commented – we’ve all thought about it – what would it be like to be weightless if suddenly there was no gravity!

I’ve always been fascinated by space, and when regular commercial space flights, space hotels and the like become a reality I’ll be one of the many wanting to go.  In the interim though there are some other ways you can experience weightlessness closer to home.  Namely the vomit comet, a nickname for any aircraft that can briefly provide a near weightless environment through parabolic flight.  And while the aircraft are essentially the same as those used for commercial flights, instead of levelling off at cruising altitude achieving weightlessness requires slightly different flying.

As the chart here shows, an aircraft achieves weightlessness by following what is usually referred to as an elliptic or parabolic flight path and while following this trajectory the aircraft (and anything or anyone inside) are in freefall (and weightless) literally orbiting the earth.  As the chart indicates weightlessness begins with ascending and lasts over the hump typically giving just under 30 seconds of weightlessness for ever minute seconds of flight.  This trajectory is repeated over and over and people I have spoken to who have done it can hardly describe the feeling – it’s so unique.  The downside though of the elliptic path, and hence the nickname for the aircraft, is that a majority of people, especially first timers, can become nauseous during the flight.  But it doesn’t spoil the fun, and the majority of people regardless will say it’s worth it!

So we’ve all thought about it, but if I want to try weightlessness what are my options?  There are a few with most companies focussing on scientific or government use but tell them what you want (even creating art) and you can receive (for a price).

In the USA

NASA now refers to its aircraft used for zero gravity flights as the Weightless Wonder and is mostly restricted to NASA training and research however there are a number of new commercial companies offering flights to individual customers, namely Zero Gravity Corporation and Aurora Aerospace.

In Russia

Not reluctant to sell access to their space program and facilities, they have partnered with western companies such as Space Adventures to offer flights.

In Europe

Flown out of Bordeaux, France (so combine with some wine tasting post flight) the European Space Agency has also used a variety of aircraft for zero gravity flights and through the company Novespace manages access to these flights. 

Travelling weightless is not the cheapest experience around with for example the Zero Gravity Corporation of the USA the most tourist friendly option offering flights from US$4950 (+tax) but it still easily beats the going price of several hundred thousand for suborbital flights (when they eventually start to happen commercially) or the multi-millionaires option of buying a ride on a Soyuz spacecraft into Space.

So if you’re tired of thinking about what it would be like with no gravity you can now make it a reality!