Alright, look, I haven’t got a lot of time, so let’s just get this out of the way.
Hard disks don’t write in weightless environments. That’s the crux of the matter. All other details are incidental.
I showed up at an office park address near the Vegas strip a little after 8am. Zero G rents space for the pre-flight orientation. Suited up and watched the training video. Loaded onto a bus for the ride over to the airstrip.
Stood outside the Zero G plane with the 35 or so other passengers. The group was mostly older, except for a handful of high school students who’d won some sort of science competetion, and also the older brother from Malcolm in the Middle.
The plane is a hollowed-out 727. Pretty small as commercial jets go, but with the overhead compartments removed, I could only just touch the ceiling.
They’ve left enough seats in the back of the plane for everyone to buckle in during take-off and landing. Once they reach cruising altitude, everyone moves into one of three rectangular zones running the length of the cabin. Your socks are colored to match the rectangle you’re supposed to stand in. This keeps people somewhat-evenly dispersed during weightlessness.
I was placed in the front-most section, up against the bulkhead. This was one of the requests Zero G filled to accomodate my dancing clip. The other was pairing me up with Todd, a crew member who volunteered to hold the camera. Everyone at Zero G was familiar with my video and they were very generous in helping out.
To create the effect of weightlessness, the plane performs a series of 15 ascents and dives. They call them parabolas. In the ascent portion of each parabola, passengers are pulling two G’s. A G is a unit for measuring the force of gravity. One G is equivalent to earth’s gravity, so pulling two G’s means you weigh twice as much as normal.
They have everyone lie down during ascents. This keeps the blood evenly dispersed in your body and minimizes the likelihood of passing out. It’s pretty unlikely to begin with — two G’s isn’t terribly burdensome — but whatever.
As the plane reaches the summit of the first parabola, the 2 G’s shifts to about 0.4 G’s in the span of a few seconds. This approximates Martian gravity. They had us all do push-ups, and then attempt one-handed push-ups.
This period lasts about 25 seconds. We get a 5 second warning, at which point we have to return to a lying down position before we get heavy again.
The second and third parabolas bring you to about 0.2 G’s, which is lunar gravity. At this point, one-fingered push-ups aren’t much of a challenge. Pushing up with vigor could smack you into the ceiling.
From there on out, it’s 0 G’s as we plummet from 32,000 to 24,000 feet, then climb back up to do it again.
One of the great things Zero G does is encourage you NOT to try to take pictures during the flight. It costs a lot of money to get up there, and it’s a shame to waste that time snapping away, so they provide a designated photographer who goes around taking high-quality photos of each passenger.
I learned of another reason not to take a camera onboard — the little Canon I had stuffed in my thigh pocket was crushed and destroyed. I don’t use those cameras to shoot the dancing video anymore, but they’re good for snapshots, so I thought it’d be a good idea to keep it handy.
They hand out packets of M&Ms and small water bottles so you can play around a bit.
The water is cool while it lasts, but when the plane levels, it hits the ground like the water creature in The Abyss and everyone just ends up mildly confused and moistened.
The M&Ms are fun, but here’s where it gets frustrating: 35 people who’ve never done this before stuffed into a 727 and given 25 seconds to fulfill their childhood dreams. The equation translates into a lot of uncoordinated flailing and smacking. My Zen moment of staring in silence at the floating, candy-coated confection was repeatedly interrupted by middle-aged men doing cannonballs into my face.
You pretty much have to give up on meditative bliss and go with the mosh pit mentality.
Another thing: I went by myself and I didn’t have time to get acquainted with any of the other passengers, so there was no one to bounce back the unbridled joy that comes with the experience. When your ass suddenly flips over your head and up is no longer up and down is no longer down — no matter who you are — you become 8 years old. It’s really the sort of thing you want to share…which makes me reflect on Alan Shephard and John Glenn and those other first few guys — the absolute solitude they must have felt up there.
There was no barfing, fortunately. I didn’t have any problems at all in that regard, and I didn’t see anyone else looking queasy. It’s much less bothersome than rough seas, and it hardly lasts long enough to become a problem.
Here’s Malcolm in the Middle guy.
I have no explanation for this.
For the last 5 parabolas, I brought out my camera and moved up against the bulkhead, where my designated cameraman and I got ready to shoot some dancing clips.
This is the part where I learned about the aforementioned. I’m shooting this new video on an HD camera that stores its footage on a 30 GB internal hard disk. Each time we’d go weightless, the camera would start recording and get about 4 seconds of footage before shutting down. Again and again we tried, and each time, it failed. I’d record during the 2 G ascents with no problems. Then when weightlessness set in, it would shut down every time.
None of the flight crew had heard of this problem. They position their own HD cameras all over the plane, but they record onto magnetic tape and it works fine.
I spoke to a Zero G technician afterwards and he theorized something about the gyroscopic effect of the spinning hard disk platters being thrown off by the lack of gravity. The magnetic heads lose their place while writing and give up.
I found another possible explanation in a technical forum: some hard disk drives are designed with a fail-safe mechanism that detects when the device is in free-fall. If an object is falling, it’s fair to assume it’s going to hit the ground soon. And when it hits the ground, the data will be more secure if the writing mechanism has stopped. What we were doing was, essentially, free-falling, so the camera decided it was about to get smashed and went into the electronic equivalent of fetal position.
Whatever it was, it meant I didn’t get the dancing clip I wanted. All I have is a couple promising seconds of what would have undoubtedly been one of the best parts of the video.
Boo hoo, right? I’m sure I’m getting lots of pity right now.
As mentioned, Zero G tickets are expensive (How expensive? Oh, go check for yourself). I can’t really swallow the cost of a second ticket, but I’ve got a lot of time and I’m disinclined to give up on stuff like this.
I’m going to work on a solution.
In the meantime, I really must be going. I leave tomorrow for five weeks alone in the South Pacific.
First stop: Tonga. Jumping in the water with humpback whales.
…buckets and buckets, just spilling over with pity.