Private astronauts practice first on Zero-G parabolic flights
For many private astronauts, the final frontier begins with a parabolic flight in an airplane.
The new CEO of Zero Gravity Corp. (Zero-G), Allison Odyssey, says the company is seeing a surge of demand from just about every private vendor looking to bring people to space. SpaceX has already publicized their work; others are doing it more behind the scenes.
Experiencing bursts of microgravity aboard the company’s modified Boeing 727 allows people new to space to “build their confidence and experience microgravity and just feel a little bit more prepared” when flight day arrives, Odyssey told Space.com.
“I think we can develop even more in partnership with those companies, depending on what they find important to have their their astronauts prepared to do,” added Odyssey on Wednesday (April 19), two days after her CEO promotion was announced. “It’s an exciting thing that we’re doing, and we get to be a part of.”
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Zero-G was founded in 2004 and is most famous for taking customers on flights on its modified 727, which typically consist of 15 or more parabolas (opens in new tab) high in the sky. If you can afford the $9,000 or more for a ticket, you will experience weightlessness for roughly 20 to 30 seconds at a time each parabola.
Even with tickets that high, there’s still plenty of consumer demand for Zero-G flights; that ticket is far more affordable than the $450,000 a Virgin Galactic customer would spend for a suborbital flight. But aside from tourism, what Zero-G is also seeing now is a surge in requests for custom flights for private astronauts, along with research needs.
The suborbital economy is growing quickly. It’s not just SpaceX sending satellites up every week or so — there’s also a few private space missions a year and a host of forecasted research flights as well. (This is pending the availability of flights aboard Blue Origin, which is recovering from an uncrewed anomaly last year, along with Virgin Galactic’s wait to complete complex fleet upgrades. But both may fly again in 2023.)
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Odyssey, who was an original Zero-G employee and who returned to the organization in 2020 after a few years elsewhere, said she’s excited to see how their unique market niche can help such customers in the years to come.
Parabolic flights can be customized for moon gravity or Mars gravity, for example. That means Zero-G could potentially help with NASA’s Artemis program aiming to return humans to the surface in 2025 or so, with a suite of modern-day scientific hardware.
Testing experiments before leaving Earth is a boon, Odyssey emphasized. “They’re able to bring a team and bring their experiments,” she said. “They can have 10 or 12 iterations of the same experiment within a few days, which is really valuable. They also have the ability to (modify a) parabola; we’ll do sets of five for example, and then we’ll do a straight and level (flight) so they can have about five minutes in between to make adjustments when sometimes things fail.”
The company is in a growth phase, including bringing on a second plane and crew to allow for service on both coasts of the U.S. regularly. A forthcoming new booking site will allow for different kinds of customers for research, consumer or charter (private astronauts). Further in the future will be a third aircraft, probably of a different airframe type to allow for a wider scope of research.
In the near-term, consumers and researchers alike can look forward to flights at the NASA Kennedy Space Center’s old space shuttle runway, allowing folks to enjoy a few sights of space history and of SpaceX pads in between parabolas. The place is a fast-growing hub of space industry as well, allowing for door-to-door scientific access.
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“From a consumer standpoint, even just being out in the runway is cool,” Odyssey said. “And part of the vision is to build out this facility so that we can do research there, have a place for the researchers to work on their experiments.”
Odyssey, who was most recently the chief operating officer at Zero-G, said she is looking forward as CEO to bringing that operations experience to the company’s top tier to assist with flight certifications — and with helping other employees grow their careers.
Odyssey also still pops on parabolic flights from time to time to ensure the clients are getting what they need. As for how many floating excursions she’s had? “I have stopped counting,” she said with a laugh.
Elizabeth Howell is the co-author of “Why Am I Taller (opens in new tab)?” (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book about space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or Facebook (opens in new tab).