(Submitted March 25, 1997)
With government spending cuts, is it possible that
NASA could offer commercial flights into orbit to the
average citizen? Also I've read that Ron Howard
took a flight on "the vomit comet" aircraft to research
the film Apollo 13, and he and some other actors flew
to altitudes where near weightlessness was achieved.
How much did it cost and could I do the same?
Your first question is about NASA, government cuts, and the possibility
of commercial space flight for the average citizen. We are not aware of any
effort by NASA to allow citizens in space other than the trained astronauts
selected by NASA. The only effort we are aware of to put citizens in space
is a program called Hankoh-Maru, a theoretical concept study in space
tourism by the Japanese space program. You can learn more about Hankoh-
Maru from the November 1996 issue of Aerospace America.
Your second question is about "the vomit comet" and its use in
Apollo 13. The "vomit comet" is a NASA aircraft which is flown to high
altitude and then sent into a ballistic parabolic dive, which it pulls
out of at a much lower altitude. People in the plane "free-fall"
dive, temporarily simulating zero g. The rather descriptive
name for the plane comes from the common experience of stomach queasiness
many people feel in free-fall. You may experience the same queasiness when
you ride on a roller coaster ... which often has a ballistic arc much
like the NASA aircraft only lasting a much shorter time. If you like
free-fall, it is easy to experience it. Bungee jumping and sky diving are
The zero-g simulation aircraft is used by NASA for fairly specific
purposes. Most often it is included as part of zero-g training and testing for
astronauts and for experiment packages to fly in space, especially
industrial applications which intend to use zero-g environment to grow
ultra-pure crystals and such. The minute or so of zero-g which occurs allows
testing of equipment to find and fix problems prior to actual use in space.
It is not a service available to the general public.
The Apollo 13 film crew obtained special permission (and undoubtedly
paid a good deal for the services) to film zero-g sequences in the movie. The
realistic portrayal of zero-g in the film was made possible by
filming in one minute segments inside the aircraft....and a realistic
portrayal of space can only serve to help NASA achieve its goal of public
space science and exploration education. Our library does not
subscribe to Life magazine, but we recall that there is a good article on
the filming of Apollo 13 and specific mention of the filming on the "Vomit
Comet" around the time the movie came out. Check issues from July or maybe
even June of 1995.
Jesse Allen, Gail Rohrbach, and Laura Whitlock
for "Ask an Astrophysicist"
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