“For two whole hours I was a little boy of eight years old,” said 45-year-old Franck Diard after a zero-gravity flight which took off from Bordeaux. “It was an extraordinary sensation and I want to do it again.”
France is one of only three countries in the world where members of the public can experience zero gravity during a flight without going into space (the others are the US and Russia). The company that offers the flights, Air Zero G, is part of Novespace, a subsidiary of France’s National Centre of Spatial Studies that uses an Airbus A310 for scientific research during parabolic flights.
Being an astronaut for a day does not come cheap. Tickets cost €6,000. But, even though the sensation does not last long, Mr Diard said it was worth every cent: “I grew up with the space programmes in the seventies and eighties and I was always attracted by the life of an astronaut.
“By 2015 it was clear I would never go into space, so this was the next best thing. The week before the flight I was anxious but once on board the plane I had absolute confidence in the team.
“It is difficult to describe the sensation, but it was amazing. It was like floating in water without being in anything, a great sense of liberty. Everybody was laughing and smiling and there was a feeling of sheer joy. I was also conscious of the technical side and the enormous ability of man to achieve this possibility.”
Novespace’s chairman Jean-François Clervoy, a veteran of three space shuttle flights, wants to get the public interested in space and share some of its magic with them. Air Zero G now offers five weightless flights a year and the 40 available places on each trip are quickly filled.
Mr Clervoy says he has experienced zero gravity 3,000 times during parabolic trips but each time carries the same sense of excitement: “Everyone discovers weightlessness to be the same strange and unforgettable sensation of lightness of being, the total absence of weight. The temptation to play is irresistible. It seizes the imagination. It is so alien to the experience of life on our planet that parabolic flight can easily lead you to believe that you have become an extraterrestrial.”
Passengers experience a total of five minutes of weightlessness during the flight, which achieves the effect by flying in a parabolic manoeuvre. After reaching a speed of 810kph the plane starts climbing until it reaches a 47° angle, during which time the passenger feels 1.8 times their normal weight. At 28,000ft, the plane dives down for 22 seconds, during which time the passengers can float freely in a special area of the plane.
The first parabola is ‘Martian’ followed by two ‘lunar’ ones – neither of which achieve total zero gravity – before performing 12 full zero-gravity parabolas.
Gilles Gompertz from Avico, the airline broker that markets the trips, says their passengers are of all ages and not all are super rich.
He said: “Above all, they are people who have dreamt of experiencing space in some way since they were children. They are of all ages from 18 [the minimum age] and the oldest so far was 77.
“About half come from outside France, mostly from Europe, but we have had people from as far away as Brazil. It seems expensive but for some people saving up for a once-in-a-lifetime experience is more important than spending money on material things. We even have clients who come back for a second experience, they find it so amazing.”
He says that only 10% of those who take the trip experience sickness: “We advise people to take classic travel sickness medication before the flight and very few feel ill during the trip.”
At the time of writing, spaces were still available on two upcoming zero-gravity flights that have already been scheduled for 2016.
The first flight will take off from Nice on May 27, and the second on June 16 from Bordeaux. Another two are being planned but have to fit in with Novespace’s scientific programme, which has not yet been finalised.