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Downlinks with Miles O'Brien

The queasy stuff: a ride on the 'Vomit Comet'

miles obrien
O'Brien in reduced gravity

IPIX 360° images aboard the "Vomit Comet"

Miles O'Brien flying high in low gravity
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March 30, 1999
Web posted at: 10:36 a.m. EST (1536 GMT)

ATLANTA (CNN) -- I am in the middle of the best book ever written by an astronaut. It's Michael Collins' "Carrying the Fire," and if you haven't read it, you should.

As Collins readily admits, his mind doesn't work like most test pilots. He isn't very good with numbers. He compensates with a fine proclivity for words. His candor and loquacity are refreshing -- and rare -- for a product of the military/NASA spin machine.

For instance, have you ever heard an astronaut admit he felt claustrophobic in his space suit? And that the phobia made him consider going to his boss (Deke Slayton) to confess and quit -- for fear of jeopardizing a mission? Not me.

Mike Collins also has some interesting insights on a plane I just got a chance to fly aboard the other day: The KC-135A that NASA uses to create spurts of weightlessness. You probably know it as the "Vomit Comet."

I hopped on this high-flyin' roller coaster with some undergrads from the University of Idaho. They were participating in NASA's Third Annual Science Fair from Nausea Hell (not the official name, as you might have guessed). It was a hoot. Which brings me back to Mike Collins.

In his book, Collins says, while he, too, had "a ball" when he first logged some parabolas over Edwards Air Force Base in 1963. But as time went on, the flights became less and less appealing to the man who eventually circled the moon while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin kicked up some dust below.

Usually he was wearing one of those dreaded pressure suits. And usually, he was trying to shoehorn too much work into the 20 seconds or so the aircraft and the occupants fall to the Earth at the same rate. In any case, for Collins, a ride inside the padded confines of the modified tanker became anything but a "ball."

The plane makes its 45 degree ascent (top). Weightlessness occurs at the apex of curve (bottom).   

Collins writes: "There is something unsettling, even for experienced aviators, about repeating 40 or 50 parabolas; the body constantly alternating between zero and 2 or 3 Gs."

"Some astronauts threw up," he admits. He never did, but he says he was "close enough at times to be utterly miserable."

Perhaps that might offer some consolation to the bright-eyed -- and just plain bright -- students I flew with this past week over the Gulf of Mexico.

It wasn't as bad as my first flight two years ago. I was there for a little piece of vomit history when 16 of the students were classified as "kills." It was a record that held until this latest batch of student flights.

Alas, I missed that particular flight, and thus, was witness to no record this time, but I did record plenty of green pallor on my handy DVC and amazing IPIX 360-degree cameras (see accompanying images). One poor girl (who shall remain anonymous out of pure sympathy) began hyperventilating -- and filling her sick sack -- after about the second parabola. Our pilot ("Ace" is his name) leveled off for a bit while V.C. Den Mother Judy Rickard strapped her into a seat.

There she sat until we kissed the runway at Houston's Ellington Field. When the flight surgeon offered her a golf cart ride to the hangar, she surprised all the adults on the plane by insisting she walk down the steps in time for the traditional post flight photo. What a memento ("Kids, this is the day mommy thought she was gonna die ...").

That night I had dinner with one of NASA's most experienced and able astronauts, Steve Hawley. We were chatting about the Comet (actually I was bragging about how I, once again, managed to retain my cookies) and he sounded a little bit like Mike Collins. He says the weightlessness on board the plane pales in comparison with the real thing -- in low Earth orbit. "A lot depends on how good the pilot is," says Steve. "But there is nothing like real microgravity."

That's a comparison I'd like to try myself someday.

Space CorrespondentMiles O'Brien'scolumn appears on Tuesdays.


Downlinks Archive

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NASA Dryden Flight Research Center
   • KC-135 Aircraft Photo Gallery
1999 NASA Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program: KC-135 1999
KC-135 "Vomit Comet"
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