Emeritus Professor John Zarnecki, center, floating, during his zero G flight aboard the European Space Agency (ESA) Parabolic Flight Campaign Airbus A310 ZERO-G. Image credit: ESA

Jul 8, 2015 Confessions of a failed astronaut

Sen—Thirty five years after I applied to be an astronaut with the European Space Agency (ESA), but missed out in the selection process, I received my consolation prize—the chance to experience weightlessness on ESA's parabolic aircraft, sometimes referred to as the 'vomit comet'.

What a day—30 parabolas flown on the European Space Agency (ESA) Parabolic Flight Campaign Airbus A310 ZERO-G (owned and operated by Novespace). I was there as a Guest Observer, along with the main payload of some 13 experiments and the teams from across Europe to operate them.

The subjects covered included human physiology, fluid mechanics, astrobiology, astronomy and space engineering. As a long-standing member of ESA’s Scientific Advisory Structure, I am often called on to provide advice and guidance to the Agency on a variety of scientific matters. I have long experience of robotic space missions, but not at all of the parabolic flights which are a significant part of ESA’s scientific armoury—so I assume that’s why I was invited along for the ride!

A typical flight involves flying 30 parabolas, each of which gives around 22 seconds of near zero gravity (and about 45 seconds of 1.8G!). Sometimes humans are the test subjects themselves as in the fields of physiology and medicine. Otherwise they are present to operate the experimental equipment.

I was able to see all the experiments integrated onto the aircraft on the day before the first of the three flights in the campaign. Most experiments are constructed within a standard mounting frame and get electrical power from the aircraft, but otherwise have to be responsible for all the instrument operation and data logging themselves. There are of course strict specifications controlling any hazardous items (gas, chemicals, high voltage, etc) and human experiments are subject to ethical control. So as not to feel completely redundant, I was appointed as a back-up experiment operator for the University of Edinburgh instrument, in case either of the two operators was taken sick. It is a hazard of the job that about 10 per cent of participants suffer some degree of nausea and sickness during the approximately three hour duration flight. Almost all participants take an injection of scopolamine immediately before flying as this is found to reduce significantly the likelihood of motion sickness.

Apart from the primary task of carrying out microgravity science, the flight does offer the opportunity to experience at the personal and human level the phenomenon of both hypergravity and microgravity.

Only the few hundred people who have become true astronauts (541 to be precise at the time of writing, see Sen's human spaceflight dataspace) have experienced extended periods of microgravity—and still probably only some thousands of people have ever experienced the shorter periods (about 20 seconds) of microgravity offered by parabolic flight. Both phenomena are quite amazing in very different ways. During the period of hypergravity when the plane pulls up on its ascent, those of us who were 'first timers' were advised to lie flat on the floor keeping our heads quite still. What struck me was how difficult it was to raise an arm or a leg—both of them weighed nearly twice what they normally do, so required twice the effort.

And weightlessness was literally out of this world! The transition from 1.8G to 0G is fast—from being 'pinned' to the floor to floating (if you’re not attached) takes a couple of seconds! It’s difficult to describe the sensation. I found that I was mostly concentrating on trying to navigate in three dimensions without the normal constraints. A small area of the interior volume is partitioned off so that when participants are not working on the experiments, they can enjoy the phenomenon of free floating without getting in the way of the 'real work' onboard.

So this was almost certainly the closest I will come to being a true astronaut. But it might have been very different! It nearly started for real about 35 years ago while I was still a PhD student. The European Space Agency started recruiting for the first European to fly on the Space Shuttle. Each member state (of ESA) carried out the initial recruitment. And to my surprise, and excitement and trepidation, I made it to the last 30 from the UK! Then came the crunch time—medical and psychological testing. Well, I thought I did OK but the letter came: Thanks but no thanks (I still have the letter!). Further enquiries revealed that I had failed on eyesight—they were still the days when astronauts had to be near perfect human specimens—today thick glasses are no problem! So two further attempts over my subsequent career proved even less fruitful, not even making a shortlist (damn Helen Sharman and Tim Peake!).

I should add that everybody who participates in the flight campaign has to undergo some medical screening. Being in the older age group, a regular ECG is not enough, so I had to pound away on a treadmill for 10 minutes or so while wired up so that my heart could be monitored. I passed with flying colours apparently so the only thing that could have stopped me would have been weather conditions around Bordeaux in France where the specially fitted out aircraft is based, or technical issues with the plane. Luckily neither intervened.

ESA has been running this campaign for many years now allowing scientists to operate experiments in a variety of fields without the rigours of having to design their instruments for real spaceflight. And occasionally, it gives the opportunity for 'failed astronauts', like myself, to get a consolation prize. Onwards and Upwards!

My thanks to ESA and Novespace for making this opportunity possible and to all the teams on this flight for welcoming me as an Observer.


John Zarnecki, center, before his zero-G flight. Image credit: ESA