$4,000 to ride weightless on Europe's "Darebus"

Wed Nov 12, 2008 10:52am EST
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By Tim Hepher and Lucien Libert

BORDEAUX, France (Reuters Life!) - Europe plans to enter the fledgling space tourism market by offering a chance to experience weightlessness to help pay for scientific research.

With Europe's space ambitions facing a budget squeeze due to the weak economy, the plan to mix science with adventure was unveiled in a "zero G" flight for European space agency chiefs on a converted Airbus jet, to which Reuters was granted access.

Brief doses of weightlessness without going into space have been available for decades on specially converted airliners such as NASA's "Vomit Comet," which trained a generation of American astronauts and was used to film "Apollo 13."

Now such flights are increasingly used for research or to prepare equipment for the International Space Station.

Novespace, a unit of France's CNES space agency which hosted the flight, claims to be leading the field in scientific deployment with a converted Airbus A300 jetliner. It carries out part of its work for the 17-nation European Space Agency.

"This Airbus is a scientific research lab. It is unique in Europe and is the biggest aircraft in the world to provide weightlessness for the scientific community," French astronaut and Novespace director Jean-Francois Clervoy told Reuters.

To achieve weightlessness French test pilots fly the Airbus along a series of parabolic arcs in an air corridor over the Atlantic, resembling an 8,000-foot high roller coaster.

Passengers feel twice their normal weight during the steep climb and descent but experience 22 seconds of weightlessness along the crest of the arc when engine power is sharply reduced.   Continued...

<p>European officials, technicians and journalists experience zero gravity during a "Zero G" test flight over Bordeaux, France in this picture taken November 7, 2008. REUTERS/Tim Hepher</p>