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Esther Dyson

Esther Dyson

Posted January 21, 2009 | 12:46 PM (EST)

Flight School: Weightless at last!

Last Monday, my training manager e-mailed me a new version of my schedule (which I normally get each Friday for the following week) with two variants: One had a weightless flight on Thursday and the other had it on Friday. At first, I tried to parse the schedule to figure out the algorithms by which it was built: Rather than push things a day later, either Friday or Thursday was removed as a chunk (presumably to be reinserted next week). And one lesson was changed on Wednesday, to be replaced with "Preparation for weightless flight." That ended up taking 40 minutes rather than two hours, so I got an extra break over lunch - and time to look forward to it.

But then the news sank in, helped by the prep lesson. Still, I was excited. I simply hoped this would be one of my good days as far as weightlessness goes. I had done it four times already, and enjoyed it each time. Once, though, I did get a bit queasy by the 15th cycle... and was glad that the 16th was the last. But on these two flights, we wre going to do only 10 parabolas (weightless cycles of 25 seconds) each.

One interesting point: The Americans tend to medicate for motion sickness, whereas the Russians are convinced most people can be trained to overcome it. Hence the weightless flights, plus numerous sessions in the vestibular chair, where you spin around in place nodding your head (and fighting motion sickness. The goal is not to make you sick or to test you, but to improve your resistance.

In the end, we went on Thursday. Charles and I met in the lobby for the appointed rendezvous at 7.05; the bus came at 7.15 and off we went. The day before I had hiked back to the gym to pick up my sneakers (the advised footwear), but one of them had fallen out of my bag between the gym and building 2. I discovered this too late and made a half-hearted effort to find it, hoping the car in the morning wouldn't mind taking a slight detour on the way to the Aerodrom. But "the car" was a bus full of men in fatigues, we were already 10 minutes late, and the answer was no. So I took my seat in the back in one sneaker and one flimsy black leather shoe. Not a great way to start the day: I felt both annoyed and stupid, but still excited to be going.

How it works

"Weight" is actually the resistance of a mass to gravity: If there's no resistance, there's no weight. In a weightless flight, you are falling inside the plane at the same speed as the plane, so you feel no gravitational force (nor do you feel as if you are falling). But you can't do this for too long, or you will hit the earth - and feel many Gs when it stops you! In orbit, by contrast, the forces of gravity are matched by centrifugal forces, so you are weightless more or less permanently, with nothing to slow you down. The 25 seconds of weightlessness on a plane are real, but it is only a trial-size experience.

Even so, it is tremendous fun. Each time I flew, I wanted more - even the time I got queasy. You want to be weightless for long enough so that you can pay attention, instead of wait for the signal to get close to the floor for the resumption of gravity. And you want to be in it long enough to overcome the queasiness.

At the aerodrom

We eventually got to the aerodrom - which is close enough to Star City that I regularly hear the droning of military aircraft coming and going at night. (They are less noticeable in the day. I don't know what gives them that low frequency, but they sound different from and more romantic than commercial airplanes.) We stopped near the airplane, and then went to a hangar from which the soldiers/airmen dragged sacks out onto the bus. (Later I found out they contained parachutes and three space suits, for me, Charles and another of the guys.)

Then we got onto the plane. To my delight, warm air was blowing fiercely from little outlets all along the floor. Then we sat down on the mats that covered the floor and waited... from about 8 am to 10.30 am. It wasn't clear what we were waiting for. The head of the mission, called Galitsin, had been friendly and approachable during the "prep" class the day before, but today he was remote and busy (starting with the sneaker incident). People milled around. There were about 20 of us all told - all men except for me, as usual.

Finally, at 10.30, we took off. That part was great: no seat belts and not even any sit-in-your-seat requirements. It was fun to stand by a window for take-off. We were wearing parachutes for safety, though they wouldn't have been much use below 10,000 feet (or higher, for novices like me).

One of the military guys came up to me and said. "My name is Boris. I'm going to be your trainer for this exercise. I will take care of you and hold on to you. All you have to do is listen to my instructions." Then he proceeded to take me through the plan. "In the first session, you'll just go across the plane, from one side to another and back. I'll push you over, and then you turn around and fly back. After a couple of times of that, you can fly up to the ceiling and back."

All this was accompanied with a fair amount of mime and hand-waving on both our parts. "Then I will try a provokatsiya or two," he continued, and I didn't pay quite enough attention. "Can you clasp your knees while I spin you around?"

" Of course," I replied eagerly.

"And that's it. For the second flight, you'll put on your space suit in the first couple of sessions, fly around in it, and then take it off during the last two [of ten]."

And so it went.

Being weightless is tremendous fun. You really are flying. The amazing thing is that it does not feel amazing. It feels natural. Of course you can give a little push and go flying across a space. Of course you can jump and hit the ceiling, or bounce off a wall. Anyone can push off in one direction, and keep going. The one thing I had difficulty doing was aiming low enough. The first few times, I tried to hit the wall but kept heading toward the ceiling and had to be pulled down. I started laughing.

Compared to my previous weightless flights in the US, it was wonderful to have twice as much space per person, so you weren't constantly bumping into people, and also my own trainer to help me...

Or perhaps not. Having someone else throw you around means you move a lot more, it turns out. By around the fifth session, I was feeling queasy, but I hung in there. Then came the provokatsiya, which was a lot of fun... but my stomach seemed to perform all those same motions in miniature, inside me. Boris looked at me handed me a large, flimsy plastic bag.

I thought I was going to have to use it, but just holding it made me feel better. And then the tumult inside me subsided.

I sat the next session out. Of course, it's not easy to sit in weightlessness; more precisely, I clung to the wall so I wouldn't go anywhere. And for the last session, I simply flew across, straight, from one side to the other.

Dr. Alimurzaev (you can see him modeling spacewear on Flickr) noticed my discomfort, and offered me a large white pill, but I demurred. "It's nice and cool on your tongue!" he insisted, popping one himself.

In all, I was glad the first set of sessions was over! The flight back was fairly straightforward as I recovered my composure.

Pereriv (breaktime)

We went back to the hangar, where everyone had gathered in a single warm room with a woman who appeared to be the manager/secretary, an electric kettle, and a huge amount of parachutes, flight bags and other equipment, along with piles of paper and various commemoratory plaques on the wall. Dr. Alimurzaev took me into a back room to take my blood pressure. "You don't need to go again," he told me. "You can go tomorrow."

Certainly, the only thing worse than going again that day would have been to announce I couldn't take it, and then wait another day to go again. I told Alimurzaev I was fine. He looked dubious. He took out some more pills. It turned out that what he had offered me earlier was actually a mint, but now he had some Dramina (the Russian version of Dramamine) to offer. I took it eagerly and again told him I felt fine. "We'll wait and see," he said.

Aside from everything else, it seemed totally crazy to wait a whole day, get the same 20 people out of bed early again, and do a repeat. I tried to look as cheerful as I could...and I was sincere. I did want a chance to redeem myself, and I did want it to be over!

Round two

At last, without any more discussion, we all got back onto the plane. I don't know whether there ever was any question of postponing it, but in any case, off we went. There was no lunch, but though I felt better, I didn't exactly feel hungry.

This time we took off right away. Once we got up, we removed our parachutes, and then (Charles and I) our outer clothes. What you wear inside a space suit is basically underwear. It seems to come in one size, 48, which is equivalent to XL.

Suddenly someone came out from the cockpit and said, "Get dressed! No more. We're going back." Charles and I looked at each other, and put our stuff back on, including parachutes. Clearly something was very wrong; I was just glad it wasn't my fault.

We all sat in silence for 10 minutes, and then a new command came out. We were going to do the flight after all. They were vague about the problem, which evidently was an equipment one, and equally vague about the resolution.

This time I acquitted myself better, though I was still glad to have my bag as a security.. well, a security device. I persuaded myself that the Dramina would work, and besides - no twirling!

Now the good thing about an XL space suit is that it's easy to get into, so in this exercise I excelled. I got into my space suit easily within two sessions, including zipping it up (with a little help from Boris). The next six sessions I flew around gently, with Boris tugging and pushing as necessary.

In the ninth session, I wriggled out of my space suit in one go, and flew across the plane again on the tenth.

So, that was it. I'm eager to go again, and get better at it. The Russians are probably right about trainability, but I think I'll take the Dramina the first time out as well. Why spoil the fun?