Is a zero-gravity meetup the newest trend in networking? While the rest of Seattle was watching the Patriots Jet Team perform at Seafair last Saturday, GeekWire was donning its flight suit with tech notables in preparation for getting weightless.
The Zero Gravity Corporation’s second-ever flight from Seattle lured some of the region’s most interesting people to bounce around a specially modified 727 together. Naveen Jain, the Seattle-area Internet entrepreneur, showed that his interest in space goes further than just starting lunar robotics company Moon Express by hosting friends and family aboard. These included execs from the intriguing contextual social app startup Humin.
Other passengers included bio-science researchers from Seattle, IT consultants from Vancouver and ex-Amazon senior vice president Kim Rachmeler, who now advises a raft of startups. “I’m a creature of habit,” she told me as we waited in the Museum of Flight at Boeing Field for the Patriots’ air show to clear the airspace. “I wanted to break out of that. Being open to new experiences is one of best ways to maintain zest in your life, especially things that make you a little bit nervous.”
We were all feeling a little nervous as we strapped ourselves into ZERO-G’s aging 727. The seats were ancient, the walls covered in thin padding and everything was held together by low-tech duct tape. But the pilot, Captain John Benisch II, told me afterwards that using Boeing’s newer jets was never an option. “We pull about 1.8g coming out of our zero gravity maneuvers,” he said. “The 727 can handle 9.2g but the 777, which is lighter and burns much less fuel, is only rated for 2g.”
On the flight deck, Captain Benisch has a bank of accelerometers and g-meters to help guide the plane onto the perfect trajectory – but it’s another low-tech device that tells him when he’s successfully achieved zero g. “We’ve got a rubber duck wearing aviator specs mounted on the dashboard,” he tells me. “When it floats off, I know we’re doing something right.”
It’s just as organized in the back of the plane, where the 36 passengers are split into three groups, each with its own experienced zero-gravity flight coach and twin high-def video cameras to catch all the fun (there’s also a photographer on board). Taking off moments after the Patriots land, we head out over the Puget Sound and up to 24,000 feet, where we have a dedicated flight corridor 100 miles and 10 miles wide.
The first few parabolas we try simulate Martian and lunar gravity. Starting from lying prone on the padded floor, we feel suddenly lighter, as if we’re in an elevator falling quickly. In Martian gravity, doing one-handed push-ups is simple – in lunar, one finger is enough. Then Captain Benisch points the nose of the 727 up to 45 degrees and goes full throttle for zero g. We shoot skywards at 28,500 feet a minute, then roll over the top into our weightless zone.
The experience is amazing. Up and down disappear, we chase candy and spheres of water through the cabin and try all kinds of acrobatic tricks – but only for 30 seconds, which is how long each parabola lasts before it’s time to pull the plane out of its dive and start the rollercoaster all over again. By the end of the twelfth zero g parabola, everyone has huge grins on their faces – and many of us are feeling a touch queasy (fortunately, no one is ill).
Landing back at Boeing Field, the passengers head back to the Museum of Flight to swap stories, enjoy some snacks and, who knows, possibly even pitch space tourism ideas to the entrepreneurs in the room. After all, you won’t find them this happy, chatty and blissfully disorientated anytime soon.
Previously on GeekWire: Our weightless wait is over: Zero-g flight arriving soon
Mark Harris is a freelance science and technology reporter based in Seattle. He writes regularly for The Economist and The Sunday Times in London, and tweets from @meharris. Images courtesy of Zero Gravity Corporation.