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Non-astronauts are welcome on the “vomit comet.”

Photograph of the author by Steve Boxall.

At Dulles Airport, it’s pretty easy to figure out passengers’ itineraries. Painful-looking new suntans: just back from the islands. Oversize skis: off to the Rockies.

And the folks in matching jumpsuits boarding an aged Boeing 727? They’re customers of Ballston-based Zero Gravity Corporation, which gives civilians the opportunity to ride in a space-simulation airplane like the one that NASA recruits once dubbed the “vomit comet.”

Zero-G was founded in 1993 by former astronaut Byron Lichtenberg, X Prize founder Peter Diamandis, and scientist Ray Cronise. Today it operates about 60 flights a year out of US airports, including a few from Dulles. The $5,400 fee buys a ride in a mostly windowless jet that repeatedly climbs to 35,000 feet, then swoops down to 19,000, temporarily allowing passengers to hover upside down, float around the cabin, and otherwise act like space travelers.

A zero-gravity flight requires a clear corridor 100 miles long by five miles wide over water or uninhabited land, which makes flights out of the Washington area difficult to arrange. On one Saturday morning, as the comet flew up to Long Island before turning out over the Atlantic, onboard coaches prepped passengers to handle the dozen or so parabolic swoops ahead. Finally, the plane climbed to its first peak. Following directions, passengers lay down on a mat, waiting for it to crest. Then . . . well, then they floated. They chased Skittles and drops of water across the cabin and took turns doing Superman poses in which they shot across the cabin, arms out. It was genuinely magical.

In addition to its regular flights, Zero-G does a lot of work with organizations such as the Make-a-Wish Foundation, as well as commercial and music-video work. The Bachelor once featured a segment shot on one of its planes, and Kate Upton and Stephen Hawking have both floated in the cabin. (The guests on our visit were less famous: They included a family from New York and a former Navy pilot who tried out unsuccessfully for the Mercury program.)

Zero-G CEO Terese Brewster, who has taken close to 200 flights, says her customers aren’t all space geeks. Mostly they’re “people who are more interested in an experience than spending money on a thing.” Of course, five grand isn’t a small amount to spend on a two-hour ride, but as Brewster notes, “It’s the only way to experience it other than going to space, which is, you know, substantially more expensive.”

This article appears in the February 2019 issue of Washingtonian.

Andrew Beaujon Washingtonian