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The Question

(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?

The Answer

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 filming 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" during the 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 other ways.

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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