Sensations in Zero-G
From the Diary of a Martian Beekeeper
8am. The morning of my Zero-G flight arrived. I haven’t been to my doctor to get the special anti-motion-sickness plasters, something that we can use to reduce the chances of vomiting during the flight. We have been advised to do this in our information pack from Space Affairs, as well as eating a full breakfast the morning of the parabolic flight, or Zero-G flight. I’m terrified. I’m entirely out of my comfort zone, but that’s precisely why I’m here.
Why I’ve decided to do this Zero-G flight. I’m tired of having a list of things that I want to do, my “bucket list” to experience, but never being bold enough to do anything about it. I’m in a new phase of life now, challenging this fear and exploring how I cope in extreme circumstances, and documenting it all whether good or bad. I’m working on a new art project on this very notion, and the Zero-G experience is part of that- the idea of every day people are put in extraordinary circumstances. I’ve brought a painting of Mars from Hayden, my 8year old space pal from back home. I wanted to bring Ireland with me on this adventure, maybe Europe too. And my Lottie doll, who joins me on all my Space adventures. I’m trying to connect with the general public, sharing these experiences with families so I can attract them to space and science, and our place in it all. This parabolic flight is part of all of this.
The travel group is quite intimidating though. Half of the group know each other already, they’re the excellent team from ‘Die Astronautin’, a German initiative led by the lovely Claudia Kessler to get a German woman in space. The two final astronaut candidates from this programme are here- Insa Thiele-Eich and Nikola Baumann. They’re impressive women, who are part of an exciting mission. And their support crew too: Carmen and Laura, also finalists from that same initiative. A wealth of talent and expertise which is intimidating, and if this isn’t terrifying enough, we also have the amazing Susi, former Olympic ski champion who now specialises in indoor surfing. She’s an inspiration, such an accomplished woman, quietly confident in her achievements, never bragging or dominating. I feel early on that I can rely on her if I need to, that she’s keeping a protective eye on me, from a distance. We get along very well, from the moment we meet at the airport. And the more time I spent with her, the more I discover about the full life that she has lived. So wise, the real deal, the perfect role model for women of all ages. The kind of woman I want to be. Then there’s Norbert from Hungary, Rok from Slovenia, Matthias from Germany and the sweet and gentle Manfred, a doctor and paramedic for mountain expeditions. Lastly, there’s Kalle and Mazdak from Space Nation, Finland. We bonded the day before, at the Cosmonaut Training Centre, in the corridor outside the doctor's office. As we waited for our medical exam to give us the all-clear for the flight, we got a fit of giggles, probably from nerves (certainly for me) or from a moment of realisation of where we were and what we were about to do. They are a cheeky duo, who wore their branded yellow t-shirts throughout the 3 days together, chancing their arm, keen to explore areas of Star City beyond the boundaries that we had been confined to. Apologising with a smile whenever they got rumbled. I really like them, I want people who are impish, bold, but in an innocent way. Driven by their curiosity always and outsiders. Like me.
Mazdak is a filmmaker too, so we have lots in common, shared values, a shared desire to inspire and an ideal to bring space to all. The core values also of their company, Space Nation. And Kalle adopts a protective role for a sub-group of us, whenever we get separated from the ‘Die Astronautin’ group (who have a separate itinerary from us, at times). He takes the lead, gently when we tour the Cosmonaut Training Centre (GCTC) to the centrifuge, the Soyuz, Mir and ISS training modules. And any other instances when we were separated from the bigger ‘Die Astronautin’ group. We have all found our roles in the group, this sub-group of us. I like the group a lot, they all know what I’m trying to do while at Star City and are keen to help me in any way they can, which is encouraging. We set up photos of Lottie and Hayden’s painting on our GCTC touch so that they are in the frame of the Soyuz, or on top of the Cosmonauts Sokol suits. Nice people.
But now, on the morning of the actual Zero-G flight, I feel the least qualified of the bunch. It feels as if everyone else on the flight knows a lot more than me, that they are better used to being out of their comfort zone. So I’m quiet on the bus journey to the runway. Susi engages me in in chat a few times, she’s keeping an eye on me, which it is excellent. We stop outside Star City to collect our translator, Lena and take a bunch of photos together. No-one is talking about what we’re about to do. We’re all excited, but none of us is sharing our fears. A bigger bus arrives, it’s the support team from the Cosmonaut Training Centre, who will be taking care of us during the flight. We had met some of them the day before on the tour of GCTC. I sit beside one of them. He has no English, and I have no Russian, so we smile at each other a lot, and attempt to exchange a few words.
Andreas, from Space Affairs, who I’ve been dealing with from the start, is all business. This is the day. This is the reason why we’re all here, so he probably feels that pressure, I’m sure. He knows all about my art project, and he has generously allowed me to bring my own GoPro on to the plane, even though he already has a network of cameras rigged up on the plane. We have spoken extensively about my work and the importance of this Zero-G flight in want I’m trying to achieve. Andreas understands artists and wants to support me, help me capture what I need. It calms me, makes me feel less pressured among this impressive group. Reminds me that my purpose on this trip is different, to absorb the experience, to document it, whether good or bad. I remember that I’ve already prepared myself for all outcomes, and if this flight doesn’t go well for me, I want to know that, one way or another. I want to capture this as much as a successful flight. As long as I record my experience, then it’s a success. That’s why I haven’t bought a special anti-emetic plaster. I don’t need to be the expert, I’m the everyday person, putting myself in an extreme situation to see how I get along. But it’s difficult to remember all this at the moment, with all the excitement, absorbing all the energy of these capable people, who all want to excel in Zero-g.
The bus pulls up outside the Ilyushin plane, and we all get out. Everyone is excited, taking pictures and exploring the plane, inside and out. The flight is imminent now. Eek! I’m excited and terrified but regretting again that I didn’t get those special anti-emetic plasters for behind my ear. We’ve been told again by the GCTC lead about the possibility of vomiting, and what to do in this instance. It’s a genuine possibility.
I climb into the plane, the interior is huge. I set up my GoPro down the back of the plane, a distance away from the main group which gives me the space to do what I need to do. I also have my zoom voice recorder and my DSLR. I place all my other equipment in a nearby pouch- my Lotties, Hayden’s painting and a poster of my next theatre show ‘Diary of a Martian Beekeeper’.
Yesterday, we were taken through training for the parabolic flight. We have 10 manoeuvres in total, that’s 10 segments of zero-g, each lasting an average of 40 seconds. The first manoeuvre we are told, is a short test phase, to allow us to get used to the sensation. The second manoeuvre, we will all link arms together as a group in Zero-g. I’ve assigned tasks for myself for the next 5, ( flying Hayden’s painting, flying with my Lottie doll and floating the theatre poster) and then, once I have footage of these activities, I can devote the last 3 manoeuvres to merely enjoying the experience. Do what everyone else in my sub-group is here to do.
Everyone has found their spot now. Kalle has taken place beside me. A Cosmonaut in training is directly across from me, up at the back of the aircraft where I’m set up. Beside him is Mazdak. Norbert is beside Mazdak, and Rok is beside him. Markus, the photographer, is then beside him. I can’t see who is beside Kalle, I think it’s Walter, but I'm not sure. The ‘Die Astronautin’ team are up at the top of the plane, I can’t really see what they’re up to. I do know that like me, they have tasks to achieve during most of the 10 manoeuvres. I imagine that their camera team have a lot going on, so I’m glad that I’m a distance away from them. That I can focus on what I need to do, without getting in their way. One of the GCTC team approach me and assists me in putting on the massive parachutes. It’s difficult to move once it’s attached, it’s so massive, more extensive than other parachutes I’ve worn before, and it’s restricting my movements.
The GCTC lead calls us together, so I manage to stand up and waddle towards him for his final briefing before takeoff. Our translator, Lena, shares his last-minute instructions in English. The engines are running, and it’s challenging to hear her so I get as close as I can to Lena. He goes over again what’s going to happen. He reminds us of what he covered the day before during training, gives us all 2 plastic bags- we take them and don’t need Lena to explain this to us, we all know what they’re for, and all hope that we do not require them. We’re then instructed us to lie on the soft cushioned floor and await further instruction.
I press record on the GoPro and the voice recorder. And we’re off! The plane is in the air. It feels like a really long time in the air before anything happens. I lie on the cushioned floor calmly and enjoy the opportunity to rest on the storey of a plane. It’s a charming place to be. I take a look to my left, and Kalle is smiling. It’s too noisy to even try to speak. So instead, we exchange a thumbs up. I look across at Mazdak, we laugh and transfer another thumbs up. I look across at Markus, our photographer, and we exchange a thumbs up. It feels like it’s the calm before the storm. It’s nice, we’re all sharing this first experience together, at the back of the plane.
I look up at the ceiling, at the bright lights. We’ve been told to keep an eye on the lights, that the lights will go brighter once we are about to begin the Zero-g phase. That this means we will initially start to feel the 2G force on our bodies, that will make us feel very heavy, that this will last for about 20 seconds. That this will always happen before the Zero-G phase. And that we will hear an announcement on the tannoy from the GCTC team when it’s safe to move in Zero G. That it’s not safe to move before this time. That the Zero-G phase will last about 30 seconds. That there will be a GCTC team member nearby, keeping an eye on us, to help us familiarise ourselves with how to move safely when in Zero G. That we must follow their instructions, so when they tell us to go to ground, we must do it. That we must be already on the ground once the lights go dim. Because the second phase of 2G is coming, for another 20 seconds as we exit the parabolic manoeuvre. And no-one should be moving in 2G, that’s when the vomiting sensation will come.
I start to doze off, as I look up at the ceiling, but begin to feel a change in the mood of the GCTC team. I notice that they are preparing for something, and so I know that we’re about to go into our first Zero-g manoeuvre. My nearest GCTC guy, Peter, taps me on the shoulder and instructs me to hold on to the bar, which runs the whole length of the plane at about hip height. I pull myself up from the lying on the floor to a seated position and lean against the wall of the aircraft holding on to the bar. Kalle & I exchange another look, and he’s beaming back at me. So is Mazdak, Norbert and Rok. Here we go, it’s all about to kick off!
The lights change, the sensation in my body is bizarre, it slowly starts to feel heavier and heavier, and I especially feel it in my head. An increasing dull pressure that immediately makes me feel queasy. My initial response is to move, to shake off the sensation, but I’ve been told that this is the worst possible thing to do. So, instead, I decide to go completely limp in my body and let the sensation happen to me, rather than fight it. It goes against all my survival instincts to do this, but once I go limp, I immediately feel better. So I stay very still as this bizarre sensation works through my body. As I cling to the bar.
The voice comes through the tannoy, and the lights get very bright. I’m still feeling this heavy feeling in my body, but Peter my GCTC guy, gestures for me to move my body. I gently push myself up and away from the bar, and I don’t know what’s happening, it’s really disconcerting. I can’t figure out where my legs are concerning my arms, it feels like I’m in a swimming pool, holding on to the bar. I find the sensation hilarious, but also kind of scary, much like the way rollercoasters make me feel. There is some bizarre force of nature acting on my body, which I’ve never felt before and I absolutely love it. I start to laugh and scream and love the energy and chaos of what’s going on. I look around at everyone around me, and we’re all finding our own way of figuring it out. Then the lights go dim, and Peter is tapping my shoulder to get down. So I let my body go limp, and that heavy pressure of 2G has returned to my body, feeling it again on my head. And it immediately makes me feel queasy still. I’m worried that I’m going to start to vomit, so I relax my body more and put it out of my head.
The lights go back to normal, and the 2G sensation has left my body. I sit upon the ground and look around at everybody. We’re all beaming and laughing and giving thumbs up to each other. I can see that I’m a lot more energised than others about it. I start to punch the floor and scream and laugh and feel amazing and can’t wait for the next session of Zero-G, that will be coming around soon.
The whole sequence is so unique, I love the new experience. I enjoy the confusion, the liberty it brings to my body, that I’m continually trying to make sense of what’s happening that my brain is in overdrive, trying to compare this experience to other previous experiences, and when it cannot, the geography of my body gets completely lost. Being in that state of confusion is hugely enjoyable, makes me want to play with it, such a liberating sensation. It is something that can only be understood in the experience, at the moment. And that it doesn’t make sense, and that’s ok. And that my body needs to learn a whole new way to move, and that can only be acquired by merely just experiencing the moment.
I loved my Zero-g flight. Every single moment, even the 2G pressure on the body. It was part of the whole experience that taught me a lot about myself, as well as my body. Everyone around me had their own personal experience, and I don’t think any of them are comparable. For me, I held on to the bar for the majority of my Zero-g manoeuvres and only realised that I had done that about 12 hours later. I indeed wasn’t the most aerodynamic or adventurous participant on that flight, but it was an extraordinary experience, which was hugely enjoyable. Challenging at times, and as a consequence tremendously rewarding.
Seemingly I laughed and screamed for nearly every manoeuvre, (which I wasn’t aware of- my screaming pretty much killed any chance to use audio of the flight- sorry!). Peter stayed with me throughout each manoeuvre and would tell me how many laps of Zero-g were remaining. He helped me with all my activities- getting Hayden’s painting to float, flying with Lottie, he even carried me at one stage to allow me to get my theatre poster to glide across my GoPro lens. On the last lap, we shook hands, and he helped me fly across the width of the plane, to push me gently into to doing something new for the final 3 laps of my Zero-G flight.
And then it was over. And we were done. Two hours went in a blink of an eye. I gave Peter a huge handshake and thanked him earnestly in my worst and limited Russian. I hoped that my expression would make up for my poor words of gratitude. He seemed to understand. As I sat down and leaned against the inner wall, looking around at everyone and processing all that had happened, the GCTC lead came up to those of us remaining (those who hadn’t succumbed to vomiting & were still capable of flying in Zero-g) and shook our hands. It felt like we had all earned a little bit more respect from him. That we had passed this small rite of passage. It was a celebratory moment for us all, and I was thrilled with myself that I had survived it. That I had enjoyed it so much more than I had thought. That I had completed all the work that I had planned to do, and still had time to play too.
The plane landed, and once the engines switched off, we all excitedly shared our experiences, laughing together and helping each other disembark from the plane. Andreas ran up to us to hear how it all went. ‘Did you get the shots?’, he asked me ‘did you get the footage that you needed?’. ‘Yes!’, I told him, ‘and so much more’. We took a group photo, the GCTC team headed off, and we were on our way back to the hotel.
As the adrenalin started to leave my body, I realised how completely knackered I was from experience. Thankfully, the time had been factored into our itinerary to rest post-flight, so after a light lunch, I lay on the bed and slept soundly for a few hours. I guess our bodies are working really hard against the 2G forces and then we’re probably concentrating a lot when we’re in Zero-g, to make sense of what’s happening our bodies. I got up for dinner and joined the table of my new Zero-g passengers. Everyone had great stories, there was lots of laughter and smiles and support. We all had shared this extraordinary experience, and it had brought us all together as a consequence.
I’m delighted to have completed my Zero G with that particular group of people at that specific time in my life. So much emerged from that trip, it rippled in too many different aspects of my work and reached beyond what I had imagined. I’ve no doubt that I’ll be back in the Ilyushin plane again. Possibly not with Susi, Norbert, Rok, Kalle, Mazdak, Manfred, Markus, Insa or Nikola. But definitely with the GCTC team, for sure.
Wonderful. Just wonderful!
Dr. Niamh Shaw – Dublin/Ireland
Niamh was with us in the summer of 2017 on a parabolic flight in the Star City, and later she feverishly awaited her first live start in Baikonur, and this touched her extraordinarily.
She has more stardust in her than carbon.