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Saturday, 25 November, 2000, 12:34 GMT
Weightlessness: Better than sex?

By Emma-Jane Kirby in Moscow

Despite the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia has continued to run a space programme. The main difference now is that foreigners are actively encouraged to take part in it.

An hour and a half outside Moscow, at a space training centre called Star City, would-be cosmonauts learn about the rigours of space flight, and how to work in the most challenging environment of all - zero gravity.


Your instructor wishes to assure you that you will vomit with satisfaction

Instead of the high tech military camp swarming with surveillance cameras which I had vaguely imagined, the Russian space centre seemed to be a collection of rather down-trodden high rise apartment blocks cut into dense woodland.

The peasants who were carefully tending their vegetable allotments looked far removed from the burly cosmonauts I had been prepared for. But we probably presented them with an equally confusing picture.

As flight trainees, we were a somewhat motley crew - an enormous, bald, Slovenian theatre director called Dragan, a circus acrobat, a German juggler, a couple of French dancers, a delicate Irish rocket scientist called Susan, and myself, a BBC radio reporter.

Plastic bags

A young Russian officer ushered us into a dingy building for our first briefing and introduced himself as our instructor. He spoke through an interpreter, Irene, a commanding blonde woman dressed in a power suit and whose English, although beautifully fluent, seemed to slip continually into the imperative.


I felt the alarming sensation of my internal organs shifting

"First, you are to watch a video," she said. "You will enjoy this please."

Our Russian instructor drew us a parabola, or hill-shaped diagram, to help explain the physics of the flight. At the top of each parabola the plane made, we would experience weightlessness for 30 seconds or so as the plane went into free fall.

After zero gravity we were to expect 2G - where the pull of gravity is twice as strong as usual and we would feel double our weight.

It was about then that my ear picked out, through the incomprehensible Russian, the repetition of a slightly familiar phrase: "Plastica bagga".

"Excuse me," I said. "This business of plastic bags - is there a chance we'll be sick?"

The interpreter looked surprised.

"Of course you must vomit," she said. "But this is an experience of a lifetime.

"Your instructor wishes to assure you that you will vomit with satisfaction."

'Like a drug'?

My first impression when I saw the plane we were to fly in, was that it simply had not been finished. There were no seats, no windows and the floor was covered in thick mattresses.


Nothing could have prepared me for the violence of the reaction that followed

An older man, in the uniform of a high ranking Colonel, helped me into my parachute and told me this would be his zillionth or so flight.

"Zero gravity is a drug," he said. "The feeling of flying is so good I have to have more and more - I'm addicted."

He switched off my tape recorder and lent in closer.

"I will tell you a secret," he whispered. "Zero gravity - it's better than sex."

But I was beginning to feel a little nervous. As the engines started up and a deafening roar filled the plane, I clutched my plastic bag tightly.

The plane climbed sharply at a 45-degree angle and then suddenly white lights began to flash and the plane felt very hot. A voice boomed over the loud speaker, warning us that zero gravity was imminent.

Zero gravity

Nothing could have prepared me for the violence of the reaction that followed. The second we went into free fall, I catapulted up to the ceiling , spinning uncontrollably and crashing against the flailing arms and legs of my colleagues in mid air.

"Enjoy this!" commanded the Colonel.

And for a few brief moments on that first parabola, despite my absolute terror, I did enjoy it. It was an incredibly intense and strangely emotional moment and I have never before felt such freedom or such release. I was actually flying.

But in 2G, the massive pull of gravity quickly brought me down to earth.

A huge weight seemed to press against my stomach and I felt the skin on my face stretch tightly across my bones. Minutes later, and the plane took another roller coaster dive and I felt the alarming sensation of my internal organs shifting as zero gravity spun them and me towards the ceiling. I felt dizzy and nauseous.

By the third parabola I knew why the plastic bag had been so important.

By the fourth I understood that I was not cut out to be an astronaut.

By the fifth, I began to lose consciousness.

Survival

The last memory I have before I sank into deep unconsciousness, is still extremely clear - as I lifted my head to take some foul smelling liquid that a doctor was forcing into my mouth, I remember my ears pounding with a voice shouting:

"Heart dangerous!" and then seeing Susan, the delicate rocket scientist, flying heroically towards me in perfect Superman style. And a bag of somebody else's vomit flying gracefully beside her.

Back on earth, following an emergency landing - the doctors thought I needed urgent attention - I quickly came to.

The Colonel raced up to me and excitedly, took my hand in his.

"Didn't I tell you?" he said. "Didn't I tell you it was better than sex?"

I turned slowly towards him. His eyes carefully took in the stains on my sweat shirt, the puce tint of my skin, and the blood pressure pump still hanging from my arm. I shot him a withering look and he hung his head.

"Well you have to remember," he said quietly. "You have to remember that I'm an old guy."

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See also:

20 Jun 00 | Sci/Tech
Mir 'tourist' dreams of space
17 Feb 00 | Sci/Tech
Mir to be turned into hotel
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