We’ve got asteroid miners, space elevator builders, and rocket makers galore, not to mention world-class space investors like Jeff Bezos and Paul Allen. Space is now a $150m+ business in Washington state, home to dozens of companies employing hundreds of people.
Little surprise, then, that Seattle makes it to a short list of US cities to get its very own zero-gravity flight. On August 3, a modified 727-200F owned by the Zero Gravity Corporation will take off from Boeing Field with a cargo of local space geeks. At 24,000-feet over the Puget Sound, it will carry out a series of rollercoaster maneuvers to generate Martian, lunar and microgravity conditions aboard.
“We received several requests to come out and fly in Seattle, so we added it to the schedule,” says Zero-G Corp.’s director of research Michelle Peters. “If demand continues, Seattle will be the newest addition to our list of regular stops.”
The service is the brainchild of Peter Diamandis, also co-founder of Bellevue-based asteroid hunters Planetary Resources. For decades, jets have been used by space agencies to train astronauts and test equipment destined for space. By flying steeply upwards, the plane can follow a parabola that exactly mimics the microgravity of orbit for 20 to 30 seconds at a time, before pulling out at a force of about 2g. The maneuver is then repeated up to 15 times – a practice that earned NASA’s parabolic jet the nickname of the Vomit Comet.
In the mid 1990s, Diamandis wanted to offer a similar service to paying customers but it took a full decade for him to win FAA approval, then buy and modify the Boeing jet. The 727 now has just 36 seats and a large open padded area for its passengers to perform zero-g acrobatics. The flight over Seattle will involve a total weightless time of around eight minutes. That’s two more minutes of zero-g than astronauts on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, which is expected to make its maiden voyage late this year, will experience.
The imminent arrival of sub-orbital space tourism has definitely affected ticket sales, says Peters: “If you’re going to pay that much money to go sub-orbital, you want to maximize your experience. Our flights let you feel the environment you’re getting into.” A flight aboard the company’s ‘G-Force One’ plane costs around $5,000, compared to $250,000 for a seat aboard SpaceShipTwo.
Of equal interest to Seattle’s space startups might be Zero-G’s research flights. These let anyone from individuals and schools to multinationals conduct microgravity experiments at a fraction of the price of sending a payload into orbit. Small, simple experiments cost $2,500 and there is the possibility of getting NASA to foot the bill as part of its Flight Opportunities program in support of commercial spaceflight and STEM education.
GeekWire will report back from the Seattle flight in August, which still has seats available. After all, there might never be a better opportunity to see the movers and shakers of Seattle’s commercial space industry barf in zero-g.
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 G Corp.