Standing with my feet shoulder width apart, I push off my right foot to bend my right knee. I know the start of the third parabola countdown is coming when 30 seconds are left then I start a countdown of my own. 20, 10, 5, 3, 2.ONE! As soon as I hear the call for 1 second left to start, I pull up on the barre–and feel a powerful pull from behind me. The pilots have started pulling back on their controls as I’ve been pushed upward. I now weigh 1.8 times more than before as we climb through 30 and 40 degrees to a 50 degree nose up attitude.
We head up to 20,000 feet at 440 knots of true airspeed. Within less than a minute, we climbed 8,000 feet and our airspeed was cut by more than half. In the next moment, “INJECTION!” The pilots pushed the engines to idle and we were weightless. Anything not strapped down is immediately thrown to the floor. I grabbed onto one of the rails installed where there are usually overhead bins, and floated up to the ceiling where I hit my head on the padding Novespace has installed throughout the cabin.
It was Dr. Christian Rogon from the DLR who pushed me downward, not wanting me to fall from the ceiling when the aircraft pulled out of its dive and hypergravity reasserted itself. The pull-out lasted less than 30 seconds, but I felt every second of the 1.8g pressing my body downward. Then the shout of “Level Flight!” came from the flight deck, and everything was like standing on any other flighty thing.
Zero Gravity Airlines
Novespace is a French company with a focus on microgravity research using parabolic flights. Flights began with a Caravelle, but the plane was replaced by an A300 in 1995. Our current Airbus 310 was purchased from Germany after being used to transport the German Chancellor. Today’s Novespace flights consist of a mix of partners, including the French Space Agency (CNES), European Space Agency (ESA), and German Aerospace Research Center — Space Agency (DLR). The modifications made to the interior of our aircraft include taking out the rear seats and placing white pads in the area where free-floating participants fly so they can’t be hurt. This specific modification can be found in front of the cabin and extends three quarters across the A310’s width. The new flight deck is almost identical to what you would find on any other A310, except for two accelerometers that were installed. You’ll also notice that all the original chairs were kept inside, and are there for take offs and landings only.
The first timer
As soon as the seatbelt sign is turned off, scientists leap out of their seats to prepare their experiments. Every second counts and they have to work fast with minutes before the first parabola. Some must attach electrodes to their skin and plug them into computers in their storage rack, while others power up tiny but powerful electromagnets that may shatter a glass of water if they release all their energies at once. Outside, others are ensuring that the temperatures of their cell cultures stay within range.
I’m at DLR, which stands for the German Aerospace Center, and Dr. Katrin Stang-the program manager for Low Gravity Flight-has been feeding me advice about parabolic flight. Right now she’s telling me not to move my head too much. She wants me to stay seated during the first parabola. She leaves, going to the back of the plane where the experiments are, and she pulls a safety strap around her leg to hold herself down.
I’m pushed hard in my seat with hypergravity of 1.8g, but then the injection and I start to float up until the story goes ballistic. As I look out of the window, I can see the wing of the A310 level off before falling back to Earth, pointing downwards at 20 degrees before gravity takes over again after 22 seconds of weightlessness.
For the next acceleration experience, Stang tells me to loosen my seatbelt so that I can experience all of the weightlessness. Once we reach injection velocity, I’ll float up as far as my neck strap will allow me to go before shooting back down and taking advantage of Newton’s laws of motion.
You can recreate the mechanics of a parabolic flight with a ball by tossing it to your other hand. The ballistic phase of the ball starts when it falls back to earth. The same concept is applied in the A310, but instead of hands and a ball you have engines and an airframe. By injecting the aircraft into an orbit around the earth, you maximize time spent in weightlessness as opposed to only being weightless when you’re in level flight. Jean-François Clervoy, founder and chairman at Novepsace, agrees and he says that “to achieve zero gravity, you need to ‘throw the plane up into space and make [it] believe it’s flying in vacuum.'”
To fly a parabola, multiple pilots need to work together in concert. Two of the pilots will sit in front of the control columns and the third will operate from the center jump seat. One pilot is responsible for controlling the roll of the aircraft, while the other will manage changes to the pitch. The pilot responsible for managing changes in pitch actually has a modified control column so they can be as gentle on the yoke as possible while still keeping up with changes to rolling rate.
The pilots enter the parabola by pulling aft on the control column to raise the nose of the aircraft from level flight to +50 degrees in 21 seconds. The aircraft reaches weightlessness for 22 seconds, and during this time the pilots bring the nose of the airplane down from +50 degrees to minus 42 degrees before pulling back, raising it up to level flight in 26 seconds.
The pilots on board a flight each take five turns, each doing 5 parabolas. The pilots switch turns to keep themselves fresh and not get fatigued. “Listening to the music” is the most important thing for a successful flight, says pilot Bertrand Rameau.
Novespace’s pilots are all test pilots with years of experience. Before they can fly, they undergo extensive training in a simulator and some flight testing without passengers. Then, the pilots take on other roles within the company, like test-flying or running airline operations. Novespace only operates about 30 flights per year, so the pilots usually have other roles at the company as well.
A study of the body’s response to microgravity
After a busy day at the lab, the Space Bike team goes back to work. Their latest test subject is hooked up to a fleet of electrodes and a helmet that can detect brain waves. The team is focussed on how gravity impacts the brain’s commands to the rest of the body—and this information will help inform how astronauts prepare for life in space. As astronauts explore new realms outside earth orbit, this research will help them increase safety and prepare for missions even further into our solar system.
Near the front of the aircraft, the team from RWTH Aachen and ICARE-CNRS is lighting things on fire. They are researching cool flames in microgravity because it’s important to understand under what conditions fuels will ignite in space and how they behave when ignited. Another team from University of Bremen, ZARM, is testing space refueling—the experiment is being validated prior to inclusion on the International Space Station. Future space exploration beyond Earth orbit will need to take advantage of ship-to-ship refueling, and understanding the properties of transfer between two tanks in microgravity is critical before any larger-scale tests can be conducted.
Catch your plane flight
The flight included a healthy amount of turbulence, but it was anything but typical. The way there’s more than one parabola on the horizon means my body decided I should try out what they call the full-flight experience–and that includes using the air sick bag provided to each person onboard. The doctor came to me and gave me a fresh bag, and floated away again.
The rest of the flight passes without any further disturbances and after 31 parabolas we return to Bordeaux. After landing, I take about 20 steps before I realize two things: I’m exhausted and I want to fly again as soon as possible.
After each flight, teams get together to review the day’s progress. The flight crew shares their insights and provides any necessary adjustments for the following day. They report that because of turbulence experienced during their recent flight over the Atlantic, the next day’s flight is likely going to take place over the Mediterranean. Each scientific team shares how well they believe things went with their experiments and how they might improve it on a future flight. Most say things went well, but many will return to the aircraft later in the afternoon to modify their experiments and prepare for tomorrow’s flight.
Novespace is expanding its cooperation with space agencies and continuing to offer parabolic flights to scientists. Along with providing public flights, Novespace is also in the process of improving its A310 platform which has helped science research for the past 18 years. Now, as human spaceflight is revived and there are missions set for 2024 and 2030, the Novespace A310 will continue to play a crucial role in validating research on earth before it’s conducted over other planets.