Houston, I Have a Problem

Barfing is optional, and passing gas encouraged. Welcome to space school.


As I enjoy myself, student Parag Butala (background) surveys what’s left of his experiment. Video (link, right column): The plane descends at 45 degrees, creating the weightless environment that allows student Leslie Pham to go for a spin.

Day One: Orientation

It’s 7 a.m. in Houston, and I’m watching a video of a grown man getting sucked into a jet engine.

He survived, but I’m not sure I will: Soon I’ll board an aircraft that makes 30 percent of its passengers throw up. This is the first day of a NASA university program that climaxes aboard the Vomit Comet, a modified KC-135A airplane that performs “parabolas” — a series of ascents and descents — to simulate weightlessness. For a nervous flyer like me, this raises many questions: How can a 38-year-old aircraft take the stress of 8,000-foot dives and 8,000-foot recoveries? And, Why in the world am I doing this?

Truth is, it sounded good when four students from Brown University invited me to fly with them. As I leave for the day, a NASA instructor reminds me: “Don’t be late tomorrow, or you won’t fly.”

Day Two: Classroom & Chamber

I’m late. Perhaps it’s my new granola diet — this vomiting thing has me on edge. Luckily, NASA has a two-strikes policy.

Today’s lesson is about oxygen — specifically, how there’s very little of it where I’m going this afternoon: a steel flight chamber that can simulate the air pressure at any altitude. Warns the instructor before lunch: “With a lot less pressure in the chamber, gas expands. Don’t be afraid to, well, expel it.”

In the chamber, at 25,000 feet, we remove our oxygen masks for 5 minutes. I feel fine — even complete a simple test. At 3 minutes off oxygen, I’m asked to sign my name. Later, I see that I wrote “William Confused.”

Day Three: The Flight

It’s go time . . . finally. Just 15 minutes into the flight, we descend into our first parabola. There are few windows, so it’s difficult to tell that we’re now ascending at 45 degrees. The G-force meter on the bulkhead reads 2 and change — my body feels twice as heavy. Forty seconds later, we peak.

“Here we go,” says one of the NASA guys. I get ready to stand up, not realizing that I don’t have to. I slowly begin to rise. Soon, I’m literally sitting in midair. Way cool! Then, after 30 seconds: “Feet on the ground.” And we pull out into another 2-G ascent.

We do three sets of 10 parabolas, which takes the better part of an hour. It feels like minutes. I don’t get sick; only two students do. Soon, I’m back on the ground on the phone, bragging to my friends about my experience.

“Were you nervous?” asks one.

“Of course not,” I answer, as
I speed through a McDonald’s drive-thru. And, yes, I supersized it.