Posted by: Travis | September 14, 2008

Trip to Houston: The Vomit Comet

UPDATE: You can see pictures from the Vomit Comet here. Unfortunately there are no pictures from the Zero gravity portions of the flight yet, but fear not, those should be coming soon.

Im sitting in the San Diego airport on a lay over waiting for my connecting flight to San Francisco taking full advantage of the free wi-fi, something that all airports should have. It ended up being a pretty wild 10 days (not entirely spent) in Houston. To keep from boring people to tears i’ll split my trip up into at least 3 entrees: the Vomit Comet, Hurricane Ike, and Restaurants, since those three things consumed just about every moment of my trip. Perhaps there will be more entries if i come across something else to write about, but right now the outlook isn’t so good on that.

Riding the vomit comet, after all, was the point of this trip. Four of us from the company flew down wednesday, arriving in the afternoon to Ellington Field to get badged up and find out that all you have to do to get a security clearance is have a driver’s license and know how to spell your middle name (what if you don’t have a middle name?). Thursday the two of us that were to fly had altitude training which involved significant time in an altitude chamber, training out bodies and discovering our symptoms of hypoxia (when your body becomes deprived of oxygen as a result of altitude), as well as lectures and workshops about physiology and methods for avoiding motion sickness. We got to wear fighter pilot style oxygen masks in the altitude chamber, so needless to say the Top Gun jokes were freely flowing from this wanna-be blogger currently overdosing on typos with an unusual keyboard.

Friday was left open to make modifications to our test structure, a task for which we could have used another two or three days. Monday the furious work continued and we walked a team of NASA engineers through our test system and experiment with almost no resistance. A flight flew on Tuesday, but because our hardware was not ready to load onto the plane Monday afternoon, we had to forfeit our first day of flying.

Now to the flight. We load into the plane through the back. The experiments take place in the front half of the plane. In the back are 25 or so seats for the experimenters and the crew. We take off and after about 15 minutes are told to man our experiments, so everyone leaves their seats and prepares their experiments for the circus that was about to ensue. We get a five minute warning, then a one minute. A computer screen mounted above my head displays the current G-level. We suddenly hear a warning to get down, and everyone scrambles to get on their backs as the G counter climbs to 2.00 in a scant 2 seconds. As long as you don’t move, you can’t feel it, but i tried to lift my arms and was totally unable to do it. I keep my eye trained on the G counter and after 30 seconds it starts falling and we all start floating. I expected to just float above the ground, but it yanks you up like you’re on a string. Its funny to look around and see everyone pop up and start floating around in unison. Jim, the other guy from my company, and i look at each other right after popping up and immediately say in unison “this is so cool”.

I took the first 3 parabolas (30 seconds of 2-G, 30 seconds of 0-G) to acclimate myself and try not to get to aggressive. After that, i’m feeling pretty good and start with our experiment, which against the recommendations of the motion sickness experts, requires quite a bit of head movement (it messes with your balance sensors in your inner ear during intense changes of acceleration). We were scheduled for 50 parabolas and i felt great for the first 15 or 20. Then i started to pay for my head movements and started getting hot. Sweat started to pour, and from my experiences in the backseats of cars on family road trips driving down winding roads, i remember that being hot makes me much more susceptible to motion sickness. I got a jolly rancher and a cold bottle of water from a crew member but i just couldn’t shake that feeling. I was pretty sure i was going to throw up and was eventually offered a cold, wet towel waiting for me back at my seat. Sounded nice, so i accepted and made my way back to my seat.

The hardest parts of the flight are the transitions. Going up and down happens at 45 degree angles to the ground, but it really feels like you are going straight up and straight down. When you come over that hump and start plunging toward the ground, its a little freaky to say the least. Not only the psychological effects, but going from 0-G to 2-G in 4 seconds wreaks havoc on your body. When you are out floating around, focusing on your experiment, you spend that transition period moving around, worried about getting down on the ground. In a seat, there’s no way to distract yourself from the feeling at it becomes much more pronounced.

As soon as i sat down the motion sickness got worse. Much worse. I made it about 3 more parabolas and then pulled out the vomit bag and let it rip. Vomitting in zero-G is weird. I’ll spare you the details, but trust me, its strange. Luckily i ate breakfast at 4:30 that morning and didn’t have anything in my stomach but liquids. My stomach emptied out pretty quickly and i was left dry heaving the rest of the flight. With about 10 parabolas left all i wanted was to get off the damn plane and go home. That’s a really terrible feeling, knowing that you’re suffering, and the thing that’s causing it isn’t going to be slowing down for a long time. I’d like to think that my experience putting myself in the hurt doing climbs on my bike helped me shut things down a bit and mitigate the discomfort, but it still sucked.

We landed and i couldn’t have been happier to get off the plane. Shortly after that we found out that the rest of the flights for the week (we were scheduled for 2 more) had been canceled due to Hurricane Ike. That was going to be it for this trip. We packed up our hardware and arranged to have it shipped back home.

Even though i suffered, i thought the flight was really fun and i definitely don’t regret going. In fact, because we are going to rescedule for next spring or summer, i’m thinking about going again. Why? Because it was just that incredible an experience. And, i think i could take measures to avoid getting sick again. However, i will be bringing an alternate to take my spot if i get sick.

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