Call me an adrenaline addict, obsessed with any machine that can pull extreme g-loads. On the ground, it's a high-perform-ance sports car tossing me about on the racetrack. In the air, it's an F-18 fighter jet (see "Extreme Machines," December 2002) that can, for short durations, pull 7g. However, all this is nothing compared to what an astronaut experiences sitting atop 78 million lb. of thrust and being hurled hundreds of miles into space at 3g, traveling 17,000 mph and feeling weightless in orbit.
Since my odds of becoming an astronaut are worse than winning the lottery—especially now that the NASA Space Shuttle program is finished—the next best option is to drive the world's fastest production car: the Bugatti Veyron Super Sport, to satisfy the speed kick, and beg NASA to allow me to fly on the zero-g plane (aka the Vomit Comet) to experience weightlessness. Fortunately, both Bugatti and NASA agreed.
In Houston, Ellington Airport allowed us to run the Bugatti on its 8000-ft. runway, a perfect facility for the Veyron Super Sport to stretch its legs. From a standstill, the Super Sport takes off much like a jet, except even faster as the car's W-16 quad-turbocharged engine spools up quickly and puts all 1200 bhp on the ground via all-wheel drive with no wheelspin. Exploding forward at 1.04g in the first 100 ft., the Bugatti literally shoves you back into your seat, and the thrust continues to build all the way up to 200 mph in about a mile, leaving plenty of room on the runway to shut it down without taxing the brakes. Going 200- mph will get your heart racing, but not because the Super Sport feels nervous. The car feels absolutely stable at speed. It is the quick-rising speedometer and the scenery whizzing by that get your attention and the adrenaline pumping.
The next day, I joined California Institute of Technology students MacKenzie Day, Colin Ely, Robert Karol, Supriya Iyer and Yichuan (Connie) Sun on their experiment to study self-deployable thin-walled carbon-fiber structures to be used in space (). The team was selected by NASA to take part in the 2011 Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program () where experiments are flown on a plane that can simulate zero gravity.
After a few hours of training on how to minimize the chance of getting motion sickness—that's how the plane came to be known as the Vomit Comet—the students and I anxiously boarded the zero-g plane. During flight, the plane flies on a parabolic flight path. As the jet climbs, you experience 3g as you are pressed against the floor. Nearing the top of the parabola, you are basically let go and continue to climb as the plane starts its descent. When you starting falling back, the plane also descends at the same rate so you never hit the cabin floor. That's when you float in the air. And what a fantastic sensation!
With a total of 32 parabolas scheduled and 30 seconds of weightlessness with each one, there is plenty of time for the Cal Tech team to complete its experiment and still have some fun. In the zero-g environment, it is extremely difficult to move about since you are floating in the air with nothing for your legs to push off of to move around. Your hands and arms become your best friends to grab handles and push off walls in the direction you want to go. But once you are moving, there is nothing to stop you but another person or the inside of the plane. The best trick to play is to tuck into a ball as you float up, and have someone spin you around for zero-effort somersaults.
Luckily, I made it back to the ground without adding to the plane's reputation for inducing nausea. Having the opportunity to drive the Veyron Super Sport at more than 200 mph—and then fly onboard NASA's zero-g plane to experience weightlessness—these are two of the most out-of-this-world thrill rides, ever!