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Benjamin Spillman

Zero gravity for 3.5 G's

25 April 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Two dozen people are levitating over the Pacific Ocean, and the magician in the group has nothing to do with it.

In fact, a magician hovering peacefully in the cabin of a modified 727 isn't even the most surreal part of the latest -- and possibly most elaborate -- not-so-cheap thrill available to Las Vegas tourists.

That's because everyone on board the Zero-G flight, including Teller of Sin City's magic duo Penn & Teller, is also hovering, floating or spinning midair in the padded interior of the jumbo jet.

"I've never done anything this frivolous," said one of the journalists on board as the flight climbed away from McCarran International Airport and westward over the Mojave desert.

Fortunately for the company operating the flight, Zero Gravity Corp. of Las Vegas and Florida, it doesn't count on reporters to come up with the $3,500 it costs for a trip that promises passengers the sensation of weightlessness.

The reporters, photographers and even a weatherman wearing aviator shades went to help Zero-G's owners reach their real target audience: corporations, casino visitors and conventioneers looking to experience the thrill of simulated space flight with none of the skill or training of an actual astronaut.

Even in Las Vegas, a town built on fulfilling impulses of its guests, the opportunity to float weightlessly in a simulated orbit stands out from night clubbing, gambling, race car driving and every other visceral experience on sale in Southern Nevada.

"You could talk about this for the next 10 years," Zero-G passenger Felix Rappaport gushed as the plane returned to Las Vegas from maneuvers over the Pacific Ocean.

Rappaport, president and CEO of the Luxor, was among 28 people who floated through the cabin. Rappaport took the flight as a scouting trip to evaluate it as potential experience for big-betting gamblers and other resort guests.

"You're always looking for the next big thing," he said.

And judging by the reaction to the flights, going weightless in Las Vegas will be a very big thing.

Not only is the sensation rare -- only about 2,700 people have flown on a Zero-G flight since 2004 -- it takes just a few hours, making it ideal for well-to-do weekend visitors, big-spending corporate customers in town for conventions and gamblers who want a memorable experience without getting too far from the casino.

"Hell yes," said Jim Kilby, a professor of gaming at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, when asked whether he envisioned casinos booking guests on the flights.

"This is exactly the type of thing we are looking for," said Kilby, who worked 38 years in the gambling industry, including 34 in Las Vegas. "Nowadays, almost everybody in the country has gambling within 50 miles. You have to be more creative."

Kilby estimated a casino would need a customer worth $16,000 to $18,000 in "theoretical win" during their visit to justify a $3,500 comp in the form of a Zero-G flight. That works out to an average bet of $1,500 for someone who spends 12 hours gambling during a three-day trip.

"That is probably the caliber of player that we would need," Kilby said.

Zero-G co-founder and CEO Peter Diamandis took the weightless flight on Monday along with journalists, travel Web site operators, casino bigwigs and celebrities like Teller and Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

Diamandis, chairman of the X PRIZE Foundation, which promotes technology research through large cash prizes for researchers, estimates the Zero Gravity Corp. will become profitable by year's end.

According to Zero Gravity, a typical flight customer earns more than $200,000 annually, is a male between the ages of 18 and 35, makes three or more trips annually to Las Vegas and gambles more than $2,000 per visit.

Zero Gravity also estimates in 2007 it will capture 7,000 of the approximately 140,000 Las Vegas visitors willing and able to buy a trip. That would translate to nearly $25 million in revenue.

Besides gambling guests, more than 20,000 conventions held annually in Las Vegas provide another potentially lucrative niche. The Consumer Electronics Show alone attracts about 150,000 people with connections to free-spending technology companies that may want to impress big clients or reward top performing employees with a flight.

"The reason we are here in Las Vegas is because of that market," Diamandis said. "People come here ... wanting to do the most amazing things they can."

Creating weightlessness in flight is a decades-old concept. NASA uses a C-9 aircraft to conduct experiments in a weightless environment.

"From 1984 to 1987, I did everything I could to get one flight on that plane," said Ray Cronise, a former NASA microgravity researcher and stockholder in Zero Gravity who has flown research and commercial weightless flights. "Today a parent could buy their kid a graduation present to take a trip on this."

Zero-G founders embarked on creating a commercial model in 1993. It took until 2004 to get necessary approvals from the Federal Aviation Administration. Zero-G operates under the same level of service and scrutiny as any commercial airline in America.

Once the permits were in place, the company started offering limited service from Florida. The expansion to Las Vegas marks the evolution of the company into a mass-market entertainment provider.

Noah McMahon, chief marketing officer for Zero-G, said the potential commercial viability of a space-like tourism experience increased greatly during the 14 years since the Zero-G founders conceived their idea.

"People thought we were nuts," McMahon said of the original reaction to the idea. "Not only are we for real and actually operating this space tourism concept, people aren't laughing about it anymore."

Although the Zero-G jet flies only about as high as a commercial airliner, company founders view it as a steppingstone to commercially available space tourism.

"Within a couple years, you will all have the power to pay and go into space," McMahon said.

The Zero-G plane that took off from Las Vegas this week was configured to carry about two dozen passengers. The company plans to add enough seats to take 35 passengers per trip and increase the amount of floating space on board. A group charter costs $115,000.

Diamandis hopes the company can support two or three flights per day during busy times.

It enhances the experience by providing photographers and video cameras to document the trip. Each trip includes a preflight briefing, several photo opportunities, flight suits and a post-trip party for guests.

But weightlessness is far and away the main attraction.

Passengers achieve the sensation during a series of smooth parabolic maneuvers the jet makes during flight, which takes place in arcs between 24,000 and 32,000 feet in altitude. Most windows in the cabin are blocked, which adds to the surreal character of the experience.

"You actually have no idea the plane is tilted," Diamandis said. "There is no perception."

The flight Monday lasted about 90 minutes with roughly seven minutes of zero or reduced gravity time, about as much zero gravity time as astronaut Alan Shepard experienced during the first human space flight by an American in 1961.

Shortly before the plane is ready to begin maneuvers, passengers lie flat on the floor of the 90-foot, padded floating zone. The first detectable sensation is the feeling of being pressed into the floor at nearly two times the force of gravity. The heavy feeling lasts several seconds while the plane climbs into position for the weightless or near-weightless portion of the trip.

As the plane crests the arc, the force gently reverses and passengers float into the air.

The trip includes levels of reduced gravity comparable to Mars, the moon and, finally, complete weightlessness.

"We all struggle with describing it," said John Baumgartner, a vice president of sales and marketing for Zero-G and in-flight coach who helps passengers maximize weightless time by assisting in spins and tricks. "It is somewhat like we would think of a dream."