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Best of Benjamin Spillman
Benjamin Spillman

Nothing to these flights

5 March 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Long after Frank Sinatra sought a trip to the moon and David Bowie pondered life on Mars, Las Vegas tourists will have a chance to have their own space dreams fulfilled.

A company founded by a space flight entrepreneur and a former astronaut will offer the experience of weightlessness via a modified Boeing 727 flying 24,000 feet above the Nevada desert.

Zero Gravity Corp., founded in 2003 by entrepreneur Peter Diamandis and astronaut Byron Lichtenberg, will launch a weightless flight program April 21 from Las Vegas for the general public.

The company started operating the flights in Florida in 2004, but it expects to cultivate most of its future passengers from tourist and convention traffic in Las Vegas, Diamandis said Friday.

"That is our goal, to really get people to recognize Las Vegas as the place you go to become weightless," Diamandis said.

Zero Gravity is generating buzz for the launch with a flight April 26 from Cape Canaveral, Fla., for renowned British researcher Stephen Hawking.

The Cambridge professor recognized as an expert on black holes and other deep space phenomena also suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Hawking, who has said the future of humanity will depend on colonizing space, is known for embarking on high-profile adventures despite his dependence on a wheelchair for mobility.

"I also want to show that people need not be limited by physical handicaps as long as they are not disabled in spirit," Hawking told the New York Times.

Plans for Zero G flights have been in the works since 1993, when Diamandis and Lichtenberg first sought Federal Aviation Administration approval for the venture.

"We had to prove every aspect of the airplane was safe," Diamandis said.

The company falls under the same regulations as major commercial airlines, he added.

"It is not like a little charter operation or a private jet," said Diamandis, who said the company has invested more than $10 million so far in the venture he expects will attract about 10,000 passengers annually at the outset. The company will also market to corporations and conventions.

The Las Vegas operation will have one modified Boeing 727-200 and a building near McCarran it will use as a headquarters and to hold one-hour, pre-flight training for passengers who will pay $3,500 for a two-hour flight with about 7 1/2 minutes of "reduced gravity" time.

The 727 will have seats for 35 passengers near the rear of the aircraft. The front of the passenger cabin is padded and has no seats or luggage bins.

Commercially trained pilots will fly the aircraft to a dedicated airspace about 20 to 30 minutes from the airport. Passengers are then directed to lie on the floor of the padded area of the cabin before the plane begins a series of maneuvers in a parabolic pattern that create the weightlessness effect.

"It is very enjoyable, very gentle," said Diamandis, who also co-founded the X-prize for private spacecraft innovation. "Everybody is giggling and laughing and having a great time."

The concept of creating a weightless environment on an airplane isn't new. NASA has used a similar process during training procedures for decades. It has also been used by researchers and moviemakers.

Since Zero Gravity began flights in Florida the company has flown about 2,500 passengers, including homemaking expert Martha Stewart and astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

Initially, Zero Gravity expects it can conduct as many as six flights from Las Vegas in a weekend. It could add weekday flights as the market demands, Diamandis said.

He compared the significance of commercially available weightless flights to the popularization of scuba diving by the mid-20th century undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau.

"When Jacques Cousteau invented scuba diving, he made it possible for the public to experience underwater," Diamandis said.