Unfasten your seatbelts aboard the ZERO-G

What child has not dreamed of breaking free from gravity's chains and floating, weightless, above Earth's surface?

That fantasy, long-since dismissed in the adult mind as a violation of Nature, came true this week for a small group of scientists, French parliamentarians and journalists, including this reporter.

The lucky few experienced a dozen 30-second episodes of pure, head-spinning zero-gravity aboard an Airbus A300, owned by French aeronautics firm Novespace and run by France's National Centre for Space Studies (CNES).

Make no mistake - there's nothing like it, not even Frank Sinatra singing "Fly Me to the Moon".

Once available only to astronauts and scientists, the weightless experience is about to become a bit more accessible, provided you've got the cash.

Novespace managing director and ex-astronaut Jean-Francois Clervoy announced Tuesday that he plans to offer commercial flights, including one before the end of this year.

Final approval from France's civil aviation authority is pending, and the price tag - provisionally set at 4,000 euros (5,700 dollars) - has yet to be finalised.

But Clervoy envisions half-a-dozen sorties a year with 40 passengers each starting in 2012. It would be only the third such commercial service in the world, along with one in the United States and one in Russia.

So unfasten your seatbelts.

For this flight, which took off from the Paris Air Show in Le Bourget just north of the French capital, passengers were offered a needle in the arm to stave off air sickness. It was a good idea.

To understand how a so-called parabolic flight works, think roller-coaster.

Ahead of each half-minute dose of weightless nirvana, the jumbojet sticks its nose in the air at a 47 degree angle and climbs, climbs, climbs.

This is when those on board - mostly slumped against the padded floor and sides of the emptied fuselage - experience "hyper-G", a sharp intensification of gravity.

At it's maximum, the G-force reaches 1.8, enough to make it feel as if one's limbs have turned to lead and a 900-pound gorilla is parked on one's chest.

Try to imagine, then, a gravitational force of 10G, which is what fighter pilots endure during certain death-defying manoeuvres.

"Planes are designed to withstand 10G. The human body is not," said Captain Jean-Claude Bordenave, our pilot for the day and one of only a handful in France licensed to fly a jetliner as if it were a stunt plane.

"Injection!", says a voice over the loudspeakers as the Airbus hits the top of its arc.

Suddenly, the pressure is gone.

Indeed, a gentle push with a fingertip is enough to send one hurtling through space, spinning head over heels. Oddly, novices instinctively try to swim - a French deputy attempts a breaststroke.

But air is not water, and there's not enough friction to generate any movement, just a silly grin.

With one's eyes closed, there is no up or down, no tugging sensation telling the body how to align itself before the gravity gets switched back on. One gentleman lying against the ceiling during zero-G, dropped with an alarming thud as the Airbus leveled out from its nosedive and prepared for the next up-and-down.

Since they began in 1997, CNES's Airbus zero-G flights have been reserved for experiments, along with the odd invited passenger.

International scientists will continue to have priority, said Clervoy, who has clocked hundreds of hours in space, including three trips on the US shuttles Discovery and Atlantis.

There were three teams of researchers on this flight.

Medical doctor Paula Beck and a team from the University of Witten-Herdecke and the German Aerospace Centre tested how blood flow in the human body reacts to weightlessness.

The data could one day help prepare astronauts for the long flight to Mars, where humans weigh about 40 percent less than on Earth, she explained.

"Imagine after a year of no gravity you land on Mars. You start working, but maybe your body can't deal even with the reduced gravity," she said. "We just don't know."

There is no better way to prepare astronauts for weightlessness, said Sebastien Rouquette, CNES's project manager for parabolic flights.

"Nothing else has this level of realism. The sensations are genuine, like being in space," he said during the flight.

Minutes later, as the plane headed back to Le Bourget, Rouquette broke out into full-throated song.

"Fly me to the moon, Let me play among the stars, Let me see what spring is like, On Jupiter and Mars," he crooned.

Ol' Blue Eyes couldn't have said it better himself.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100
News
Bobbi Kristina Brown, daughter of the late singer Whitney Houston, poses at the premiere of
people
News
people
News
The frequency with which we lie and our ability to get away with it both increase to young adulthood then decline with age, possibly because of changes that occur in the brain
scienceRoger Dobson knows the true story, from Pinocchio to Pollard
Voices
The male menopause: those affected can suffer hot flushes, night sweats, joint pain, low libido, depression and an increase in body fat, among other symptoms
voicesSo the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Life and Style
health
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

    £14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

    Recruitment Genius: Network Executive - Adrenalin Sports - OTE £21,000

    £19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you looking for an exciting...

    Guru Careers: Product Manager / Product Marketing Manager / Product Owner

    COMPETITIVE: Guru Careers: A Product Manager / Product Owner is required to jo...

    Guru Careers: Carpenter / Maintenance Operator

    £25k plus Benefits: Guru Careers: A Carpenter and Maintenance Operator is need...

    Day In a Page

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen