An Audio Postcard from Zero Gravity

Pat Duggins has covered nearly 100 space shuttle mission, but until recently, he's kept his feet planted firmly on the ground. Duggins recently got his first chance to enjoy zero gravity while aboard the sub-orbital flight known as The Vomit Comet. The parabolic flight creates the feeling of weightlessness.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

And more on the final frontier. A familiar figure here at NPR recently got to indulge his passion for space travel. This week on Science Out of the Box, he takes us way out of the box.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: For over a decade, NPR listeners have gotten their updates on NASA from reporter Pat Duggins. He's covered nearly a hundred space shuttle missions but always at a distance. Recently, though, Pat stepped aboard a parabolic flight. That's a jet plane that repeatedly flies in figure eights, which creates a feeling of weightlessness. Pat zipped up his flight suit to bring us this audio postcard.

(Soundbite of noise)

PAT DUGGINS: Getting ready to go weightless takes more preparation than your average space story. My recorder has to be stashed inside my blue flight suit with the microphone cable snaking out like a space-age catheter.

I'm at the Kennedy Space Center with about 30 public school teachers. We look like we have the same tailor since we're all in matching blue coveralls. There's not an astronaut in the bunch and there's no NASA insignia on our suits. Instead, the logo of the Zero-G company is stitched on. That's a Florida-based business that takes up paying customers to experience weightlessness.

The teachers get to fly free today, thanks to a grant from an aerospace company. Before we take off, we all have to get past Chaz Wendling. He's our coach on this flight.

Mr. CHAZ WENDLING (Zero-G Flight Coach): Hi. No swimming, and what we call swimming is moving your feet, okay? If I see you swimming, I'm going to grab you, okay? And I hate to do that, because it kind of ruins your experience a little bit. But for safety reasons, I don't want anybody to get kicked in the head. It's happened to me, not too fun. Not too fun.

DUGGINS: Wendling has one other job as well. One out of every three astronauts gets space motion sickness, and that can get pretty severe.

Mr. WENDLING: Want to give you your meds right now, okay? Everybody gets one.

DUGGINS: Well, I couldn't help but notice that the inside of my flight suit's equipped with an air sickness bag, so if not one then the other?

Mr. WENDLING: No, actually, that's just in the rare occasion that somebody experiences motion discomfort. Most of the time, we don't have - we never have an issue with that.

DUGGINS: With the briefings behind us, we all climb aboard Zero-G's Boeing 727 jet called G-Force-One. The rear third of the plane has seats such as you'd find on a regular airliner in the coach section. That's kind of disappointing for a $3,000 flight. The front section between us and the cockpit is hollowed out and lined with white padding from floor to ceiling. That's where the action takes place. Weightless or not, this is still considered to be a passenger flight, so FAA rules apply.

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible) to demonstrate the operation of your seatbelt. To close, insert the flat metal end into the buckle. The length may be adjusted by pulling the strap.

DUGGINS: After taking off from the Kennedy Space Center and heading out over the Gulf of Mexico, we leave our seats to go forward to the padded half of the plane to lie down. The pilot then takes us on a steep climb, which increases the feel of gravity and makes us feel riveted to the floor. Next comes a steep dive, and that's when the floating begins. A Zero-G staffer gives us a warning that our first round of total weightlessness called Zero Number One is coming.

Unidentified Man: Time to call for Zero Number One.

(Soundbite of cheering)

DUGGINS: I'm starting to feel the pressure of gravity, which should go away in just a second. And here we go.

(Soundbite of cheering)

DUGGINS: We're up off the - going toward the ceiling. Oh my goodness gracious. Everybody's floating around the cabin here toward the top, down toward the bottom.

Unidentified Man: Right there, coming up.

DUGGINS: That second warning means gravity is coming back fast, so we all quickly lie back down to avoid falling on each other. We repeat the drill 15 times. At one point, I wind next up to teacher Rita Caplin(ph). She's holding onto a hollow plastic ring with a ball that can roll round and round inside.

Ms. RITA CAPLIN(ph): This is a cat toy with a ball attached they run around with. We're going to see what happens to the ball and how this thing floats.

Unidentified Man: On the (unintelligible) for Zero Seven.

DUGGINS: And up toward the ceiling and - whoa, down toward the floor.

Once again, we're all bouncing around inside the plane. We've all reverted to teenagers on the amusement park ride of all time.

Hello, here we go. Woo.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DUGGINS: Despite Chaz's earlier assurances, three of the passengers are now strapped back in their seats, air sickness bags in hand. We may not all have the right stuff, but those eight minutes of weightlessness were about what astronaut Alan Shepard experienced in 1961 as America's first man in space.

For NPR News, I'm Pat Duggins at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

LYDEN: Wow, that sounded like fun. Pat's new book is called, "The Final Countdown: NASA and the End of the Space Shuttle Program."

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Looking Back on Shuttles Facing 'Final Countdown'

The orbital thrusters on the side of the nose of Columbia. i i

These orbital thrusters on the side of the nose of the Columbia — recovered from the shuttle wreckage — were just below the spot where astronaut William McCool sat during the descent. Pat Duggins hide caption

itoggle caption Pat Duggins
The orbital thrusters on the side of the nose of Columbia.

These orbital thrusters on the side of the nose of the Columbia — recovered from the shuttle wreckage — were just below the spot where astronaut William McCool sat during the descent.

Pat Duggins
Astronauts Rick Husband and William McCool sat behind the windows from this windshield frame. i i

Columbia astronauts Rick Husband and William McCool sat behind the windows from this windshield frame in the final moments before the shuttle disintegrated in 2003. Pat Duggins hide caption

itoggle caption Pat Duggins
Astronauts Rick Husband and William McCool sat behind the windows from this windshield frame.

Columbia astronauts Rick Husband and William McCool sat behind the windows from this windshield frame in the final moments before the shuttle disintegrated in 2003.

Pat Duggins

A quarter-century after the first space shuttle blasted off from Cape Canaveral in 1981, the shuttle program is still struggling to find its true mission.

It's a criticism many space program observers have made as the shuttle program comes to an end in 2010. In his new book, Final Countdown: NASA and the End of the Space Shuttle Program, Pat Duggins, a senior news analyst from member station WMFE in Central Florida, recounts the controversial history of the shuttle program, which has been marred by two fatal disasters and exorbitant costs.

Duggins, who has covered more than 85 shuttle launches, began his career during the 1986 Challenger disaster, interviewing witnesses and offering eyewitness accounts as wreckage from the shuttle came in to the Kennedy Space Center hangar.

Duggins traces the shuttle's history, looking at NASA's secretive missions, and its more well-known missions to supply the International Space Station and repair the Hubble Space Telescope. Following the disintegration of the Challenger in 1986 and the Columbia in 2003, Duggins examines NASA's struggle to rebound and define the shuttle program's mission until its retirement.

He includes interviews with many key shuttle personnel, including astronaut John Young, who was the commander on the 1981 Columbia mission. He also looks past 2010 to NASA's next major effort: the Orion Crew Exploration Capsule, which is slated to go to the moon and Mars.

Scott Simon spoke with Duggins about the shuttle program and its legacy.

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NASA and the End of the Space Shuttle Program

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