In disgust he stomped off to lunch without his pack. On the way he was caught up by two waves of tourists: some Frenchmen — the same ones — and a crowd of Swiss, Dutch, and Germans, just returned from a selenobus tour of the crater Eratosthenes. The French, doing what people normally did when getting their first taste of lunar gravitation, bunnyhopped instead of walked, bounced off the ceiling — to the squeals and cheers of the women — and relished the slow descent from a height of three meters.
I spent a big part of my childhood reading and re-reading passages like these, from Stanisław Lem’s books. Or living and re-living, to be precise — I don’t think I ever wanted anything more than to be Pirx, piloting his little Cuivier, doing some obscure missions in the God-forsaken corners of the Solar System.
Since then I resigned myself to the fact that I will never go into space. Even though recent advances in commercial space travel are very promising, I will most likely forever look at the Moon longing, and forever dream of standing inside one of Schiaparelli’s imaginary Mars canals. One Sunday in 2007, however, I was very lucky to have experienced some of these things I dreamt of since when I was little.
The Zero Gravity plane — a gutted Boeing 727, affectionately called “The Vomit Comet” — took a dozen and a half of us up somewhere far above and away from the Moffett Field in California. We were lying on the floor of an empty, padded cabin. We were wearing funny uniforms and ridiculously thick socks sans any shoes. We were all on prescribed anti-nausea drugs. We all signed wavers.
Then the plane turned off its engines.
Ordinary coordination wasn’t worth a damn in weightlessness, but the old training had by now come back to him. He did not need to stop and think how to push out with his legs like a mountain climber in a rock chimney, while turning both wheel locks of the hatch. Someone uninitiated would in his place have gone head over heels trying to unscrew the spoked wheels that were like the ones used in bank vaults. Quickly he closed the hatch behind him, because although the bow section was filled with air, the air was stale, acrid with the fumes of chemicals, as in a factory. Before him was a space that narrowed into the distance, dimly lit by long rows of tubes and having double-lattice struts on the port and starboard walls. Unhurriedly, he launched himself.
The most obvious way to achieve zero gravity is simply to get far, far away from all the celestial bodies, particularly that one we consider our home. That way, however, also happens to be both prohibitively expensive and unreasonably dangerous, so zero gravity is simulated using other methods. The most common one is free falling; in the absence of other forces, free falling equals weightlessness. Simply jumping off a plane, however, only does half of the trick — the air you’re cutting through actively opposes you, after all. But inside a plane that itself is plunging towards the ground, you are, for about 30 seconds, weighing just about nothing, and experiencing it just as you would in outer space. Then the engines start again, the plane goes up (and, since nothing in physics comes for free, you now weigh about twice of what you normally do), and the whole routine repeats itself. Fourteen more times. Fourteen more parabolas. The first three simulate the lower gravity of Luna and Mars, the others leave you completely weightless.
All of this started decades ago as a way to train future astronauts and perform micro-gravity experiments, but in 2004, a private company offered an opportunity for mere mortals to fork out a lot of money for, a cynic might say, basically getting airsick in a fairly spectacular setting.
And yes, I did get sick. Bur first I lay down in 2g, weighing 360 pounds and not being able to lift my head, my digital camera a brick in my one hand, a little bottle of water feeling twice as heavy in the other. I clumsily tried to walk on Mars, with ⅔ of my weight suddenly gone away. I jumped in Lunar gravity, with even less grace than Armstrong and Aldrin almost forty years earlier. Then, gravity ceased to exist altogether.
He passed — becoming accustomed to the bitterness in his mouth and throat — the oxidized hulks of turbines, compressors, thermogravistors, with their galleries, platforms, and ladders, and skillfully swam around giant, thick-walled pipes that arched between tanks of water, helium, oxygen, having wide flanges encircled with bolts. He alighted on one of these, like a fly. He was indeed a fly, in the bowels of a steel whale. Every tank loomed higher than a church steeple. One of the fluorescent tubes, half-burned, flickered steadily, and in that changing light the oxidized shapes of the tanks now darkened, now shone as if sprinkled with silver. He got his bearings. From the area of the reserve tanks he drifted forward to where, in the massive insulation of the central level, nucleospin units gleamed under their own lights. The units were attached to bridge gantries, their mouths plugged. Then a sharp cold reached him, and he saw the frost-covered helium pipes of the cryotron systems. The chill was such that he prudently used the nearest handgrip to keep from touching the pipes, because he would have frozen fast to them in an instant, like a fly caught in a web.
During the last 12 parabolas, I flew, I levitated, I tried to catch a bubble of water suspended in the air in front of me, I threw M&Ms to propel myself in the opposite direction, and I felt the unbelievable sensation of the world suddenly escaping from under me. For the first time I saw my legs as an obstacle, I laughed at my body not knowing what to do in a situation it’s never faced before — and, ever since then, I’ve been cursing what now seems an arbitrary, unnecessary, just plain unfair tax on one of our three spatial dimensions.
They say that the best sci-fi happens when its stories could be safely transplanted to today’s real world; when it uses futuristic technology, supernatural events, and alien worlds just to make it easier for us to look at ourselves in a new way and to stop taking some things for granted. That staccato of half-minute gravity blackouts was like that for me. What would architecture be like if words like “floor” and “wall” lost their meaning? How would you redesign tables? Drawers? Bathrooms? How would we eat? Move around? Make love? How would we look ourselves, given that our legs would now be used in very different ways? (That’s why we all wore socks during the flight — your first instinct when moving around in zero gravity is to use your legs, but typically what they’re best at is… accidentally kicking someone in the face.)
There was nothing for him to do here, and he had come precisely for that reason, as if on vacation. He could not explain the satisfaction he derived from these shadowy, deserted regions of the ship, which testified to its power. In the bottom loading bays, automatic excavators were anchored, plus heavier and lighter landers, and farther on, in rows, were green containers, white blue — tool kits for repair automata — and at the prow lay two sriders with enormous swivel hoods in place of heads. By chance — or, perhaps, intentionally — he moved into a strong draft that rushed from a ventilation register and was borne toward the port ribs of the inner hull, which were the size of bridge arches, but deftly took advantage of the motion to push off. Like a jumper on a trampoline he went headfirst, turning slowly at an angle, toward the handrails of the prow gallery. A favorite spot.
And, most curiously, would we dream of gravity in a world where you can’t fall?
Written in 2007–2011.