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Please direct your attention to the front of the cabin for a brief safety announcement before today's zero-gravity flight on G-Force One, which will take us round-trip from the state of Florida to a state of weightlessness in two hours, during which time all barnyard animals must be stowed securely beneath the seat in front of you. (Producers of a Japanese game show once asked to float chickens throughout this cabin, but our captain prohibits poultry in motion.)
Likewise, anyone in possession of a live monkey should pass it to a flight attendant now. (When Justin Bieber filmed a fragrance ad on this aircraft, his pet capuchin, Mally, had to stay home.) It is permissible to get married in flight -- one couple has done so aboard this vessel -- but you may not consummate that marriage with zero-gravity whoopie. ("We have had people who want to have sex on the plane," sighs a representative of Zero-Gravity Corporation, the company that operates G-Force One. "But it hasn't happened. We'd know.")
Be sure to secure any belongings you may have brought on board lest they drift away into the remotest regions of the fuselage. "We've found a Cartier watch, lots of phones, car keys," says Zero-G director of sales Krysta Cossitt, who will be making her 95th commercial flight, today. "All the props that look nice floating around in photos -- like Skittles -- we have to vacuum up after."
A cosmologist -- in homage to Isaac Newton -- was once photographed aboard G-Force One with his head wreathed in orbiting apples, thrown toward him by hands just out of frame. "It was surreal," says flight attendant Stevie Steiner, "to see Stephen Hawking pelted with apples."
And speaking of surreal: If the supermodel Kate Upton happens to float overhead in a gold lamé bikini and Manolo Blahnik heels, you are not having an adolescent fever dream, for Ms. Upton will be photographed on this zero-gravity flight in the first-ever Swimsuit shoot staged seven miles above the Earth, in a state of weightless suspension. "I'm hoping I don't throw up," she says. "It wouldn't be a cute picture."
Which brings us to our final safety issue. Only 4% of passengers on G-Force One become sick. But for those who do, space vomit is best cleaned up instantly -- collected in a bag at the moment of egress, before it has a chance to diffuse, which is why a flight attendant will provide each passenger with a clean white barf bag before boarding, which you can press jauntily into the unzipped breast pocket of your flight suit. It works just as well, we're told, to hurl directly into the pocket.
Now sit back and relax. When the seat belt sign is extinguished, you'll be free to float about the cabin.
In truth, we are told all of this at our Friday-afternoon walk-through before our Saturday-morning voyage into zero gravity on the same type of craft -- nicknamed the Vomit Comet -- that NASA used to train astronauts. Eat sensibly tonight and abstain from alcohol, suggest the various emissaries from Zero G. "But they only say that based on what they don't want to clean up," says a ravenous member of our 12-person Swimsuit crew, as we sit down defiantly to our preflight dinner at Rusty's Seafood and Oyster Bar in Port Canaveral, Fla. There, four dozen raw oysters may be inhaled from a bucket, like getting sick in reverse.
Before the copious entrees arrive, as heads swivel and eyes spring-snake throughout Rusty's, the 13th member of our party swans in. Kate Upton, the model, actress and adventurer, is instantly recognizable from -- among countless other vehicles -- that month's 100th anniversary issue of Vanity Fair, on the cover of which she resembles a modern-day Marilyn Monroe, the actress who once said, "I defy gravity."
Except that Kate is prepared to defy gravity for real, through the miracle of parabolic flying. Our trip will comprise 15 rapid ascents (during which our bodies will feel nearly twice their weight on Earth), followed by a 25- to 30-second period of weightlessness at the top of the arc before we descend. Picture Lance Armstrong's polygraph, or Charlie Sheen's EKG, and you get some sense of the vertiginous peaks and valleys we'll be tracing in a series of 45-degree up-and-downs.
On seeing Ms. Upton, men at Rusty's solemnly remove their fishing hats and squeeze them over their hearts. You can practically hear old-time car horns going ah-ooga, ah-ooga. As if on cue, a conga line -- formed by the local Jimmy Buffett Fan Club, the Space Coast Parrot Heads -- sweeps past our table.
We continue scarfing seafood, tossing caution -- but not yet our conch fritters -- to the wind. Josh Harris, the audio technician of our documentary film crew, says portentously, "Bananas are the only food that taste the same going down as they do coming up." We all nod gravely and eye each other's plates.
In 10 hours we'll report to the Space Coast Regional Airport in nearby Titusville to make weightless swimsuit history, before the Russians beat us to the punch. "I fly so much I think I'll be fine," Kate says in Rusty's parking lot, before we all repair for a fitful sleep in a nearby resort. "We'll see."
We'll see. For that is the larger mission here: To see. What does man see when he escapes a prison he never knew he was in, and floats away like a soap bubble on a summer breeze, aspiring to the heavens?
For most of human existence gravity was a nameless mystery, the physical barrier between man (down here) and God (up there). Newton himself knew that gravity was but one more clue in a larger mystery. "Gravity explains the movement of the planets," he said, "but it cannot explain who sets the planets in motion." Men and women who appeared to escape gravity's clutches even momentarily -- John Glenn, Michael Jordan, Ms. Monroe -- were venerated. But their power was illusory. At the height of her fame, at the dawn of the space age, Monroe said, "Gravity catches up with all of us."
If gravity always wins, man can still take the occasional lead, thanks largely to the rocket, which, said Werner von Braun, the Father of Rocket Science, "will free man from the remaining chains, the chains of gravity which still tie him to this planet. It will open him to the gates of heaven."
For some, escaping gravity's leash is more physical than metaphysical. "I have traveled the world, from the Antarctic to zero gravity," the wheelchair-bound Hawking once said, laying out the physical frontiers of his, and humanity's, existence. Like Hawking, I too am traveling from Antarctica to G-Force One, but in the span of five months, and in the company of Ms. Upton -- whom I last saw on the Drake Passage, departing the Antarctic Peninsula -- so that we've become bookended in fashion-forward adventure, Lewis & Clark meet Dolce&Gabbana.
Outside Rusty's a feeling of impending awe super-venes. We're near the launch site of Apollo 11, which took man to the moon and his first glimpse of the eternal: One small step for man, one giant peep for mankind.
In the morning we will board G-Force One, a three-engine, swept-wing Boeing 727-200F with modified hydraulics and avionics, a concept that allowed director Alfonso Cuarón to prepare for Gravity. This is not a simulation of weightlessness but the real thing: Freedom from gravity. The idea is to see what will happen when the most attractive force in the universe takes on Kate Upton. Or when gravity takes on the most attractive force in the universe. It is Newton versus Upton, winner take all.
After putting on his flight suit at 7 a.m. in the men's room of Space Coast Regional Airport, our documentary filmmaker, Robb Riley, emerges through the swinging door, pops his eyes and whispers gravely, "I just met the captain in there. I think he was in the conga line last night."
He's joking, of course. Captain John Benisch II, on the contrary, is a reassuring collage of aviator shades and silver hair who scans the bikinis and heels strewn about the airport and says, "Boy, you have a lotta costumes." They're not mine, I protest, they're Ms. Upton's.
But then who knows what mode of dress lies in our Star Trek future, for we are on the cusp of a commercial space-travel boomlet. Entrepreneurs like Richard Branson and Elon Musk now promise a Jetsons' vacation in orbit for everyone, and G-Force One is the gateway drug. "More people will go into space in the next decade than have gone in the whole 50-year history of space travel up to now," says Terese Brewster, the president of Zero-G. The seven total minutes of zero-gravity flying we'll do today, she notes, will be roughly as many as Alan Shepard experienced in 1961 when he became the first American in space.
For half the cost of a first-class ticket to London, G-Force One will take us through one parabola of Martian G (or one-third of Earth's gravity), two parabolas of lunar G (one-sixth Earth's gravity) and 12 invigorating parabolas of the full monty: zero G.
Thrill-seekers from eight to 93 have survived this flight, including Cossitt's 86-year-old grandfather. Together they floated away like Charlie and Grandpa Bucket in the Great Glass Elevator, drifting free from Wonka's factory.
Just before boarding, a nervous energy prevails. Kate is excited by the prospect of weightlessness, in which a single one-finger push-up will send her to the ceiling. "Yes!" she says. "I don't have to go to the gym today."
It's impossible not to swagger in slow motion while wearing a flight suit and walking across a shimmering tarmac to G-Force One just before slipping the surly bonds of Earth. As we stride 13 abreast toward the mother ship, I pop a Dramamine and say, in my best Chuck Yeager drawl, "It's go time. Let's light this candle."
And then the nerves return, and there's a moment just before takeoff when everyone on board appears to be questioning his or her intelligence. Riley, buckled into his seat, leans over and says, "They're taking the Swimsuit crew into space today, but if this goes well, and we don't screw up, they're thinking of taking a monkey into space next."
We're not really going into space, but rather 200 miles off the coast of Tampa. G-Force One is only allowed to fly parabolas over water or unoccupied land, so we'll be making our arcs in a block of dedicated airspace between 24,000 and 35,000 feet. Benisch pilots this ship all over the U.S., often operating out of New York City and Las Vegas, where a best man once surprised his guest of honor with a zero-gravity flight the morning after a bachelor party, bringing to mind Gordie Lachance's memorable description, in Stand by Me, of "a complete and total Barf-o-Rama."
G-Force One has seven rows of seats at the very back, used for takeoff and landing. The entire fuselage forward of those seats is covered by white padding the size, shape and color of baseball bases. It is literally a rubber room, confirming the feeling -- as we get out of our seats at cruising altitude -- that this is about to get crazy.
Lying on our backs on the "floating area," as the plane climbs up in our first zero-G parabola, we feel a fat man sitting on our chests. At 1.8 G's, my 200 pounds are suddenly 360. My arms feel pinned at the wrists and shoulders. And then the plane, like a roller coaster cresting a hill, hits the top of its arc: The screaming engine gives way to silence. And then abruptly, miraculously, it happens: Gravity yields to levity.
It stands to reason that the absence of gravity (from the Latin gravitas, meaning weight or seriousness) means a surplus of levity. The immediate response upon floating upward, unbidden, is to laugh hysterically. "Think of the person you know who complains the most," Captain Benisch had promised. "That person will be laughing uncontrollably. Your spine expands and releases an endorphin rush, which is why all you hear is laughter." Says Brewster, "Our biggest marketing challenge is finding a way to describe that feeling."
All about me, passengers are barrel rolling, somersaulting and planking like Superman in flight. We are suspended in invisible amber, swimming in a waterless aquarium. The intrepid Ms. Upton flies overhead like a magnificent Macy's balloon off its tether. The weightlessness lasts only for 30 seconds, but we'll repeat those 30 seconds 11 more times over the next 90 minutes, and each time will be stranger than the last, as gravity falls away like a bathrobe before a hot tub.
"On the first one I shot straight up to the ceiling," Kate will recall later, when we've all come down from this acid trip. "Then I didn't know how to get off the ceiling. I felt ridiculous. I was thinking, What am I doing here?" By here, she means on the ceiling of an airplane, wearing only a bikini and a practiced gaze of utter ennui, with her eyes somehow always fixed to camera. "Kate's always on point," says Swimsuit editor MJ Day. "Always giving the good face."
If we hadn't seen the face of God, exactly, neither had most of us gotten sick. Josh Harris, our audio engineer, did become queasy, but so had Justin Bieber before him. Weightlessness is a great leveler. As a Zero-G source said proudly of our host, "Krysta has caught celebrity vomit."
Immediately upon deplaning, we hold a "regravitation celebration." This NASA tradition sees our upside-down name tags stripped off our flight suits with the sound of ripping Velcro and reapplied right side up, so that Robb Riley's Top Gu--style name tag is now legible as scrappy doo.
Captain Benisch presents Kate with the stuffed NASA monkey mascot that had ridden shotgun in the cockpit, after which she assents to sign my barf bag: It is still pristine, as is hers, and I wonder aloud to what extreme of human experience next year might take us == to the Mariana Trench, perhaps, or the International Space Station?
"I'd prefer the next shoot be in a temperature-controlled hotel room," she says. "I'll be wearing regular clothes, reading a book. I think anything normal would shock people now, like: Oh, my God, she's on a beach."