30,000 FEET ABOVE EASTERN NEVADA — One minute, Robert Hillier was lying down. The next instant there was no up or down as he was propelled through the air.
Hillier, a teacher at Sunset Junior High in the Davis School District, took an exhilarating weightless flight with 28 other teachers Monday on G-Force One, a 727 aircraft owned by the Zero Gravity Corporation. His trip was sponsored by Northrop Grumman Foundation, a global security company trying to get children interested in science, math, technology and engineering by giving their teachers learning opportunities.
"This is a dream I've had since I was a kid," Hillier said before boarding the flight that would allow him to experience the gravity on Mars, the moon and outer space. "It's on my bucket list."
Zero gravity is achieved within the aircraft when specially-trained pilots perform a series of "parabolas," or arcs between the altitudes of 24,000 and 32,000 feet. At the beginning of each arc, the aircraft climbs at a 45-degree angle, then rolls into a controlled descent that creates a temporary zero-gravity environment, lasting for about 30 seconds. The maneuver has been used for more than 50 years in training astronauts as well as in making Hollywood film productions.
The excitement in the aircraft-turned-weightless-teacher's-lounge was palpable Monday. Teachers laid on their backs in preparation for weightlessness, and at the first tugs of the aircraft's climb, they shouted with anticipation.
"This is worse than waiting for Christmas," one teacher yelled.
The teachers were encouraged to seek input from their students on potential experiments they could conduct in zero gravity.
Kit Workman flew helicopters in the Air Force and is the ROTC aerospace instructor at Clearfield High School. He and other teachers took a plant onboard and checked its oxygen and carbon dioxide levels to see if it was under stress. They also checked the effects of zero gravity on a human heart by hooking up electrodes to a teacher's arms and tracking their heart rate.
The least complex experiments were also some of most amazing, as showcased by Justin Frost, who was enamored with the idea of drinking floating water droplets.
"I'm doing the simplest (experiment) I possibly can, and I'm just going to enjoy the ride," said Frost, who teaches engineering at Syracuse High. "I've always dreamed about being able to drink water out of the air."
An onboard "coach" arranged for that by squeezing water through a syringe. Another teacher tried to yo-yo.
At least one experiment went badly, resulting in an errant gyroscope getting tangled in this reporter's free-floating hair.
Commercially, the Zero-G flight experience runs around $5,000 per person, but the teachers' trip was covered in full by Northrop Grumman. The organization has taken more than 1,150 teachers up in the air. There were six flights across the country this year alone.
There's no question in Bonnie Bourgeous' mind that her excitement will transfer into the classroom, and she already has statistical data from her experiments for them to compare.
Motion sickness patches could be seen tucked behind ears, but that didn't prevent a few people on board from utilizing the paper bags tucked into their flight suit pockets. After the completion of nearly 15 parabolas, most everyone was a little woozy, albeit excited.
"It was the best sick I've ever been," Hillier said. "I'll probably be talking about it for weeks if not months."