I have a tendency to seek out remarkable experiences - eclipses, tornadoes, vast animal migrations. I've never been particularly interested in space, but I've long been intrigued by travel's ability to stretch the boundaries of perception. So when I met a former Zero G participant who referred to her flight as "the most awe-inspiring" journey of her uber-adventurous life, I started researching how to book passage.
Parabolic flight was developed in the 1950s as a way to explore the nature of zero gravity, and NASA has long used it for research and training. It's the only way to achieve true weightlessness without leaving Earth's atmosphere (aside from drop towers, which aren't safe for human experiments).
Zero G, based out of Arlington, Virginia, was founded in 1993, but it wasn't cleared for commercial flights until 2004. G-Force One maneuvers at degrees so acute that existing regulations would have required passengers to wear parachutes. For years, the FAA seemed perplexed to the point of inaction by the idea of a commercial zero-gravity flight. According to Zero G representatives, FAA officials sometimes wondered aloud: Who in the world would want to do this?
Today, what was once accessible only to scientists and astronauts is an experience open to anyone. Tickets are expensive - $4,950 (R68 149) - yet more than 15,000 people, ages 9 to 93, have flown on G-Force One over the years. The plane regularly airport-hops, to give different regions better access. It's reminiscent of how, in the 1920s - when airplanes were still oddities - pilots known as "barnstormers" would take their vehicles around the country to give thrill rides. "There's a misconception that you've got to be in great shape or be somehow special to be able to do this," says Tim Bailey, Zero G's flight director. "But that's not true. This is a gateway space tourism experience."
Indeed, Zero G provides a glimpse into a perhaps-not-too-distant future when space travel will be a more standard part of human existence. Only 560 people have journeyed to space, but the rise of commercial space tourism will, someday soon, radically increase that number. Elon Musk - whom the BBC has called "both bonkers and brilliant" - sincerely aims to build a colony on Mars, and his company, SpaceX, is planning to take two tourists on a trip around the moon in 2018. Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, envisions millions of people going about their daily business in space and has founded a company, Blue Origin, to make it happen. Richard Branson's commercial spaceflight company, Virgin Galactic, has declared that it has a goal of "democratizing access to space."
A ride on Virgin Galactic's spacecraft will cost $250,000. And yet, despite the sticker shock, roughly 700 people, from 50 countries, have signed up - even though the company doesn't have a hard launch date. Already Virgin Galactic has enlisted more people than have traveled to space in all of human history.
Surely space tourism, once experienced on a mass scale, will affect humanity - and not just because it will open up new vacation opportunities, but because it could reshape us socially, culturally, emotionally. My Zero G experience gave me a window into how this might unfold: how space travel could prove consequential in ways that are difficult to imagine from this point in history. There's even a chance it might improve life on Earth.