Experiencing the next-best thing to space travel with Zero-G and Blade
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Editor’s note: TPG attended this special flight as a guest of Blade. While TPG tries to pay full price for all staff travel, we sometimes make exceptions for select events to provide our readers with exclusive access.
It might still be a while until space tourism becomes a reality, but you don’t need to wait to get a glimpse into that zero-gravity life.
Since 2004, Zero-G has been offering thrill-seekers the chance to experience complete weightlessness on Earth through parabolic flights (when an aircraft alternates between rapid upward and downward arcs). New this year for the 2020 tour, Zero-G teamed up with Blade to give Manhattan and Hamptons-based passengers the ultimate adventure bundle, including helicopter transfers to and from their flights.
Travelling to space has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember. So when Blade invited TPG to get a taste of the experience, I jumped at the opportunity.
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What is Zero-G and how does it work?
Virginia-based Zero-G is the first and only FAA-approved provider of commercial weightless flights. It does this by flying a modified Boeing 727 aircraft — known as G-Force One or colloquially as the “Vomit Comet” — in a series of parabolic arcs. Each time the plane pushes over the top of the parabolic arc, flyers experience a brief state of weightlessness in the air. The sensation is so similar to actually being in space that NASA uses Zero-G for training and research.
The experience is available to anyone ages eight and up and has even been enjoyed by passengers in their 90s. Zero-G’s flight schedule includes stops in Long Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Las Vegas, Seattle and Newark.
Tickets usually cost $6,700 per person, regardless of departure location, but were available at a discounted rate of $4,750 (plus $390 for the helicopter transfers) through Blade. While still high, that’s a fraction of the cost of consumer space flights in development and offers the same weightless experience as travelling to outer space.
Flights continue to operate during the pandemic with enhanced safety protocols (more on that later).
My Zero-G experience began at Blade Lounge East, located right off East 34th Street between the East River and FDR Drive. As advised, I arrived well-rested, avoided alcohol the night before and didn’t have any acidic drinks like orange juice that morning.
Before I could enter the lounge, a Blade representative took my temperature and blood oxygen level as part of their new safety protocols. To pass, passengers must have at least 95% blood oxygen saturation and cannot have a temperature of 100.4 degrees F (38 degrees C) or higher.
I then went through a check-in process that involved my showing my ID to a Blade representative, a Zero-G representative and a TSA agent — after all, this was still considered a commercial flight. I was handed a bag containing my boarding pass, a flight suit, face mask, socks and some goodies, and invited to have breakfast.
Breakfast consisted mostly of carbs and low protein to curtail sickness in the cabin. Although the Blade Lounge usually offers an open bar, alcohol and orange juice were big no-no’s.
Passengers got to mingle with one another and then were introduced to their assigned flight coaches, who provided an in-depth flight training session. It’s hard to describe the level of excitement that was in the room.
While most flyers were experiencing Zero-G for the first time, there were some second-timers. Anyone who was flying Zero-G for their first time needed to wear their name tags upside down until after the flight.
Despite some light rain, we had phenomenal views of the Manhattan skyline, the Statue of Liberty and then the airport. I was invited to sit in the front seat of the helicopter, which definitely added to the thrill.
We landed at EWR’s private aviation terminal, operated by Signature Flight Support. Prior to boarding the Zero-G aircraft, we headed inside for another briefing with our coaches and security screening. Despite leaving from the private terminal, the usual TSA guidelines still applied. Carry-on items were limited to items that could fit in our flight suit pockets.
Finally, it was time to board our flight. While the flight would be far from ordinary, just like any other commercial flight, every passenger got a boarding pass with a seat assignment.
Zero-G uses a modified Boeing 727 aircraft and calls it G-Force One. The plane, registration N794AJ, was over 44 years old and has previously been operated by airlines like Continental, Pan Am and Delta.
In honour of the new partnership, Zero-G emblazoned Blade’s logo throughout the aircraft.
We boarded the aircraft using the built-in stairs that dropped from the rear of the aircraft. The 727 is among the few airlines to offer such feature — also known as rear airstairs.
Once inside, the cabin looked nothing like a normal airliner. If anything, it looked like a spaceship of sorts. Aside from in the emergency exit rows, all windows were covered and there were no lavatories onboard.
At the rear of the aircraft were a couple of rows of standard aeroplane seats for use during take-off and landing. The seats were 16.75 inches wide and offered surprisingly decent legroom.
The rest of the cabin was wide-open with the walls, floor and ceiling heavily-padded. The floating zone was divided into three sections — gold, silver and blue — but they all provided the same experience. To prevent any injuries, everyone had to take off their shoes when entering the floating zone.
Shortly after boarding, the flight attendant gave a brief on-board safety demonstration. Unlike other commercial aircraft, the oxygen supply was located beneath the centre seat in each row, rather than overhead.
Passengers were required to be seated for take-off and landing. We remained seated until the aircraft reached its designated airspace and was level with the horizon at an altitude of 24,000 feet. Our airspace was over the Atlantic and was approximately 100 miles long and ten miles wide.
Once it was safe to move to the floating zone, we were briefed by our coaches once again. There were very clear communications throughout the entire flight.
After levelling off at 24,000 feet, the pilots began to gradually increase the angle of the aircraft to about 45 degrees, until the plane reached an altitude of 32,000 feet. During this pull-up, we felt extra gravity — around 1.8 Gs. The plane then slowed down and was “pushed over” to create the zero-gravity phase of the parabola.
Being the AvGeek I am, I looked up the playback of our flight on Flightradar24 and could actually see these parabolas in the speed and altitude graph.
There were a total of 15 of these parabolic manoeuvres, with each weightless segment lasting about 20 to 30 seconds. Zero-G picked 15 parabolas, typically the optimal number before flyers begin to feel motion discomfort. By comparison, NASA’s research and training flights typically perform 40 to 80 parabolas. Only two flyers on our flight experienced discomfort and that was only toward the end of the flight.
We began the flight with one Martian gravity parabola, where our weight was around a third of that on Earth. This was when I got to do the easiest push-ups of my life.
That was followed by two lunar gravity parabolas, where our weight was around a sixth of that on Earth, and then 12 zero-gravity parabolas. This incremental approach allowed us to get better acclimated to the reduced gravity.
Everything felt completely effortless during the zero-gravity parabolas. You could fly like Superman or tuck your legs to your chest and just float in the cabin — anything was possible.
Unlike riding a roller coaster or sky diving, there was no point where I felt like I was “falling.” Although exhilarating, all the movements were smooth and peaceful. It’s like laying on your bed and being pulled up towards the ceiling or floating in a pool, but without the water.
The coaches handed out various objects throughout the flight and were able to assist with any tricks we wanted to do.
We got to play with hula hoops and slinkies…
…and tried to catch pieces of candy and droplets of water.
Toward the end of each parabola, the words “feet down, coming out” were relayed through the plane. This was our cue to get on the ground as gravity would be returning in seconds.
In addition to the coaches and flight director, there was one FAA-certified flight attendant in the cabin. The attendant’s main duty while in flight was to assist passengers feeling discomfort. However, much to my surprise, there was also a light snack service at the end of the flight, just before landing.
Upon touching down in Newark, helicopters were waiting to fly us back to the Blade lounge for our “Regravitation Celebration.” Everyone received a certificate of weightless completion and first-timers were able to flip their name tags right side up
Safety has always been the top priority for Blade and Zero-G and even more so now during the pandemic. As previously mentioned, all flyers underwent pulse and temperature checks immediately upon arrival. All passengers and crew were required to wear face coverings throughout the entire experience, and — from what I saw — compliance was 100%.
Onboard, flight capacity was reduced by 30% so there were a total of 24 floaters allowed on the flight as opposed to the usual 36. Additionally, as with most modern aircraft, G-Force One was equipped with HEPA filters that replaced all in-cabin air with fresh air every three minutes.
Both the helicopters used by Blade’s operators and G-Force One were cleaned and sanitized prior to our flights.
I survived the Vomit Comet!
No words are enough to describe the feeling of complete weightlessness. This Zero-G flight was truly one of the most unique experiences of my life and I highly recommend it to anyone dreaming of going to space.
Check back next week for the review of my trip to space with Virgin Galactic! (Just kidding, commercial flights aren’t expected to commence until next year — assuming Virgin Galactic’s 22 October test flight goes smoothly.)
When you use Blade promo code BRIANF&F, you and TPG will each earn $50 in Blade credits.
Featured image by Steve Boxall/Zero-G.
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