What the Unisphere Tells Us About America at the Dawn of the Space Age

A towering tribute to the future past—and one man’s ego

In the 1930s, Robert Moses, the great builder of New York’s public works, converted a
marshy garbage dump into Flushing Meadows, site of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The
futurist extravaganza was remembered for its Trylon, a needle-thin obelisk, and the
spherical Perisphere, gleaming symbols of the American century. In 1960, Moses was
gearing up for a second fair in the same spot, and he wanted something just as compelling,
a monument to his legacy that would convince the city to change the name of Flushing
Meadows to Robert Moses Park. He sent a memo to his designers asking for some kind of
“understandable abstraction.” Maybe something electronic. Or a bridge. Moses built a lot
of bridges.

After rejecting a spiraling observation tower that Moses said looked like a bedspring, he
saw a sketch that Gilmore Clarke, a park designer and longtime colleague of Moses, had
made on the back of an envelope—no kidding—of a 12-story-tall metal armillary. This
skeletal Earth was ringed by the tracks commemorating Yuri Gagarin’s Vostok spacecraft,
John Glenn’s Friendship 7 and the Telstar satellite: the three human-made things that had
gone into orbit up until that point. The Unisphere, as they named it, would be “of the space
age,” Moses said at its dedication, “built to remain as a permanent feature of the park,
reminding succeeding generations of a pageant of surpassing interest and significance.”

Like the Eiffel Tower and Seattle’s Space Needle, those other world’s fair leftovers, the
Unisphere was an engineering achievement. Together the base and globe weigh 450 tons;
they sit atop the lumber pilings that supported the earlier Perisphere—plus 600 more,
jammed 100 feet into the sodden, garbagey soil. The globe’s continents, which act like
parachutes in the wind and must be able to stand up to hurricanes and corrosion alike,
were made of stainless steel from U.S. Steel. The stresses and strains on the metal were so
complicated that only—gasp!—electronic computers could calculate them. The Unisphere
became the space age logo of the fair, a steel Earth at the Ptolemaic hub of a Googie-style
Jetsons universe.

But the Unisphere was as much a pivot in time as in space. President John F. Kennedy,
who had begun the race to send a crewed mission to the Moon, was assassinated five
months before the fair opened. U.S. Steel, a juggernaut since 1901, stopped growing in
1964. Four months after the fair started, the USS Maddox engaged with the Vietnamese
Navy in the Gulf of Tonkin, widening U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Though the
Apollo missions were yet to come, the high-flying dreams and the industrial might that
propelled the space age were already in descent.

So was the age of Moses. The ’64 fair was a financial failure—its attendance of 51 million
was nearly 20 million fewer than expected—and Moses’ peremptory management style
(and $100,000-a-year salary) doomed him. “The great universal exposition that had been
supposed to rehabilitate his popularity had instead destroyed the last of it,” Robert Caro
wrote in The Power Broker, his biography of Moses. He lived until 1981, but he never
really built again.

Yet it remains America’s best monument to that time when America was building the road
to the future. Flushing Meadows-Corona Park still gets hundreds of thousands of visitors a
year. Millions more, on their way to airports and baseball games, spy the Unisphere from
highways Moses built. “Unisphere is very different from other retrofuture relics,” says
Darran Anderson, author of Imaginary Cities. “They appeal because they optimistically
promised us a world that sadly never came to pass. Moses’ vision of New York largely came
true.”

And if the fair destroyed Moses, it helped create another great builder: Walt Disney. “All
the big corporations in the country are going to be spending a helluva lot of money
building exhibits there,” he told his team of “Imagineers” in 1960, according to Steven
Watts’ book The Magic Kingdom. “They won’t know what they want to do.”

The Imagineers did, and ended up providing four attractions for various exhibitors,
including a talking Abraham Lincoln that Moses fell in love with after it shook hands with
him. (Moses secured $250,000 to pay for the Lincoln-bot to appear in Illinois’ pavilion.)
When the fair ended, Disney adopted Lincoln and the “It’s a Small World” exhibit, in which
mannequin children built for Unicef sang the ear-wormiest song ever written, for
Disneyland. The technology developed for moving specially rigged Thunderbirds through
the Ford exhibit drove the Haunted Mansion and People Mover rides.

If Moses’ hopes from 1964 live on, it’s in his dream of the perfectible American city.
Success in New York convinced Disney to open a new park on the East Coast. It landed in
Florida, eventually evolving into the never-ending world’s fair of Epcot and the new-
urbanist town of Celebration. They might not be Moses’ vision exactly—not enough
highways—but his fair gave rise to them all the same.

One Girl’s Mishap Led to the Creation of the Antibiotic Bacitracin
Margaret Treacy was the namesake for a breakthrough medication

The soil microbe Bacillus subtilis is ubiquitous, but one rare strain yielded scientific pay
dirt. (Science Source Library)

One day in May of 1943 seven-year-old Margaret Treacy was playing ball near her home in
Upper Manhattan when she was hit by an ice truck. She broke a leg so badly the shinbone
pierced the skin. The wound became infected, and Treacy ended up at Presbyterian
Hospital, where a bacteriologist named Balbina Johnson made an observation that would
forever change how Americans stock their medicine cabinets.

Peering through a microscope at bacteria taken from Treacy’s wound and grown in a lab
dish, Johnson noticed that some staphylococcus germs were being killed off by another
type of microbe, an unusual strain of the soil bacterium Bacillus subtilis. “The study of
these bacterial antagonists in contaminated wounds and burns should be carried further,”
urged a July 1943 report on the case that I found recently in a box of mimeographed
records in a basement archive at Columbia University Medical Center.

At the time, doctors had just begun using penicillin, the revolutionary antibiotic derived
from fungal mold. So Johnson and a surgeon colleague, Frank Meleney of Columbia, did
carry on, and found that the B. subtilis from Treacy produced an “antibiotic substance.” In
1948, the Food and Drug Administration approved an antibiotic medication based on the
discovery—bacitracin, after “Bacillus” and “Tracey,” a misspelling of the patient’s name.

Today, about 130 tons of bacitracin are used in the United States annually; the bulk of it is
fed to farm animals, but it remains a key ingredient in antibiotic ointments for people.

The little girl behind the breakthrough grew up to become an archivist and mother of one.
Margaret Treacy Addiego lived out her years on Long Island and died of colon cancer in
1994 at age 58. Her son Michael, of Malverne, New York, says he once resented that his
mother was never paid for her contribution to health care, a frustration known to some
descendants of Henrietta Lacks, whose tissue was turned into a cell culture system used in
biomedical research, as chronicled in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, now a movie.

Addiego’s view softened when he developed multiple myeloma and received
chemotherapy. He says he stopped thinking that his family had been screwed by “corporate
America” and instead focuses on how his mother’s misfortune has benefited countless
people. He has two daughters, ages 11 and 20, and whenever he slathered bacitracin on
their cuts and scrapes he would say, “This is Grandma helping you out.”

The Future of Zero-Gravity Living Is Here

Entrepreneurs predict there will be thousands of us living and working in space.
Our correspondent takes off to see what that feels like

A mid-air tourist flight. The author is second from the left. (Bob Croslin)

One moment I am my normal self, lying flat on my back, gazing at the ceiling. The next
moment, I am released. My body drifts up from the floor, and there is no force on me at all
from any direction.

I’m out over the Gulf of Mexico in G-Force One, a vintage Boeing 727 that belongs to the
Zero Gravity Corporation. The plane, which provides scientists and thrill-seekers with the
chance to experience weightlessness without going to space, has just seven rows of seats,
way at the back. Instead there’s 66 feet of wide open space, the better to make the most of
the kind of acrobatic flying that shakes passengers loose from gravity.

Around me, my fellow fliers quickly take advantage of weightlessness. Sixty-nine-year-old
Bobbe, floating in the middle of the fuselage, curls up and tries a somersault. I scramble
like a cartoon character who has raced off a cliff, arms and legs pinwheeling just before the
fall.

I push myself up off the floor, and bam!, the ceiling whacks me on the back. You can be
told a hundred times how little effort it takes to move when you’re weightless, but to
actually calibrate it, to figure it out, you have to be in it. I grab for one of the guide ropes,
and miss.

“Feet down!” yells a crew member named Robert. “Coming out!”

I don’t quite make it to the floor before gravity grabs me hard, but without a sound. The
physics of these flights is such that we go from weighing nothing—from zero G—to feeling
like we weigh close to twice what we normally do. At two G, you have a sensation of being
pinned down.

The last 27 seconds have been unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Few others have had
that chance.

But that’s about to change: Weightlessness is not only about to be democratized. It’s about
to become a lifestyle.

**********

We are on the verge of a zero gravity era.

If the new-wave space entrepreneurs manage to radically change the economics of space
travel as they promise to do, kids in high school today could spend a slice of their careers
working in space, not as astronauts but the way a young diplomat or banker today might
take a posting in London or Hong Kong. By 2030, it’s possible that many dozens of people
at a time will be working and living in space. (These days, typically, there are six people.)

The zero gravity era will mark the moment when you no longer have to be special to go to
space. You might be a scientist or an engineer or a technician (or a journalist); you might
be going for a one-time, two-week research effort or rotating in for your usual six-week
posting. But in the zero gravity era, going to space will be no more dramatic than
helicoptering out to an offshore oil rig. Exotic, specialized and more dangerous than
staffing a cubicle—but not rare or restricted.

A constellation of commercial outposts will be serviced by a fleet of reusable spaceships. A
rocket could go to orbit every day, compared with just 85 launches worldwide in 2016.
Those rockets could carry dozens of people, and head to laboratories, factories and tourist
resorts a few hundred miles up in low-Earth orbit, or they could be stationed farther out,
between the Earth and the Moon. Eventually, they will service outposts on the Moon itself
(a three-day trip) and possibly Mars.

Of course, we’ve been anticipating a true space age since “The Jetsons” debuted in 1962,
seven months after John Glenn first orbited the Earth. The Apollo missions to the Moon
were going to pave the way for human settlement of the solar system. NASA promised the
space shuttle would fly 580 missions during its first dozen years of operation. Instead, the
shuttle fleet flew 135 missions over 30 years and was decommissioned in 2011. Instead of
48 flights a year, it averaged four.

What makes this moment feel different is not a new government-backed space race but the
soaring ambitions of entrepreneurs backed by reservoirs of money, top-notch engineering
talent and increasingly refined technology. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, now the world’s
second richest man, is using his personal fortune to make cheaper, more reliable, reusable
spaceflight technology, with the goal of getting us all off the planet. Twenty years from
now, Bezos says, he wants Blue Origin, his spaceflight company, to have “put in place all
the infrastructure, so a new generation can have this incredible dynamism in space.” His
goal, he is not shy to say, is “millions of people living and working in space.”

Bezos’ strategy is to drive down the price of a launch, pull in customers, postpone profits
and create the extraterrestrial economy he wants to dominate.

He has already made significant strides: In 2015, Blue Origin launched its New Shepard
rocket 62 miles above Earth, to the edge of space, before landing it, upright, near the
launchpad. Nine weeks later, the company relaunched the same rocket, which it did a total
of four times in 2016. Nobody had done it even once. In April, Bezos said he would sell $1
billion of his Amazon stock each year to fund Blue Origin.

Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, has the same determined approach, and SpaceX
is already occasionally profitable. The company ferries cargo to and from the International
Space Station for NASA, using rockets it designed and built. In March, SpaceX bested Blue
Origin. It launched a satellite to orbit, using a refurbished rocket, the first time the same
rocket was used twice to send cargo to orbit. Orbital rocket boosters, which travel much
higher and faster, are harder to recover and reuse. “At this point, I’m highly confident that
it’s possible to achieve at least 100-fold reduction in the cost of space access,” Musk told
reporters afterward, echoing words Bezos has used. The idea is that if a launch that today
costs $100 million can be had for $1 million, customers for space will line up.

One of those will be Robert Bigelow, a Las Vegas real estate magnate and entrepreneur
who is using layers of high-tech fabric to build expandable, modular space stations that are
roomier, cheaper and reportedly safer than traditional metal-can modules. His company,
Bigelow Aerospace, has launched two small test habitats on its own, and has a third bolted
to the Space Station right now. Bigelow wants to do in orbit what he’s done on Earth: Build
useful structures and lease them out. Research labs, tourist cabins, manufacturing pods—
Bigelow’s space stations will be designed for Earth orbit and equipped to order for non-
astronaut customers.

A California company called Made In Space may be just the kind of tenant Bigelow seeks. It
is pioneering a new category of imports—products manufactured in space and sold to
Earthlings. In April 2016, the company outfitted the Space Station with an automated 3-D
printer that produces several test items a week for NASA and other customers using
designs beamed up from Earth. Later this year, it will install a test module on the ISS to
manufacture a specialized kind of optical fiber that, the company says, could improve by
many times the speed with which we move data on Earth. “This could be the first truly
industrial use of space,” says Andrew Rush, the company’s CEO.

Space isn’t a stranger to profit, of course; there are hundreds of commercial satellites in
orbit. But the big drivers of space exploration like NASA have tended to focus on advancing
science and technology more than on dollars. “Space historically has not been populated by
people who want to make money,” says Carissa Christensen, CEO of Bryce Space and
Technology, an aerospace research and consulting firm. “It’s been populated by people who
want to go to space, and the need to find somebody to pay for it was sort of an annoying
secondary consideration.”

For the new-wave entrepreneurs, money isn’t an impediment. It’s the motivation, and the
lubricant. And now a kind of market ecosystem is taking shape. Bezos can’t reach his goal
of 100 rocket launches a year until there’s somewhere for the rockets to go. Bigelow can’t
put space stations in orbit until there’s a reliable, affordable way to transport those
structures and their tenants. Made In Space needs somewhere to put manufacturing
equipment, and it needs cargo ships to take raw materials up and bring finished products
back.
This kind of space economy is “absolutely coming,” says Christensen. “If you look at
everything that’s happening all at once, there has never been anything close to this before.”

And yet, to get from here to there—from six people living aboard the International Space
Station to 60 or 600 traveling in Earth orbit and beyond—we will have to grapple with
challenges that the enthusiasm of the entrepreneurs can frequently camouflage: Life
without gravity is really hard. Weightlessness changes the food you eat, how you prepare
that food, and how your body digests it.

Weightlessness changes how you work, how you exercise, how you sleep. “In zero G, a lot
of things happen to the human body, and none of those are particularly good,” says John
Connolly, the lead engineer on NASA’s Mars Study Capability team. Gravity—or, more
precisely, resistance to gravity—is the force that gives our muscles their power, and gives
our bones their strength and durability. Older women on Earth lose about 1 percent of
their bone mass a year. Without exercise, astronauts in zero gravity lose 1 percent of their
bone mass a month. So Space Station astronauts exercise two-and-a-half hours a day, and
NASA schedules exercise as a part of the daily work routine.

Still, there is no getting around the readjustment once an astronaut who’s spent significant
time in space returns to Earth—or Mars, for that matter. “You’re dizzy, you’re nauseous,
the blood in your body shifts down to your legs when you stand up,” says Scott Kelly, who
spent 340 consecutive days aboard the Space Station, a record duration for an American,
before returning to Earth in March 2016 after completing his fourth and final trip to space.
“And there are also the things that you can’t see—the effects of radiation, effects on your
vision.” It turns out that zero gravity reshapes your eyes, and it happens so quickly that
astronauts with perfect eyesight travel to the Space Station with a couple of pairs of
eyeglasses designed to correct their vision when it starts to change.

Largely because of such physiological challenges, the question of how to get astronauts to
Mars and back, about an eight-month flight each way, remains unresolved. Some experts,
including at NASA, believe the only practical solution for people planning to spend much
more than a year or so in space is to manufacture “artificial” gravity, by designing
spacecraft that can spin, creating centrifugal force to mimic some of Earth’s gravitational
force. How to design such a spacecraft is “one of the big questions,” says Connolly, who
also cautions that this approach could cause as many problems as it solves. “There are lots
of benefits, but in practical terms a spinning spacecraft creates lots of engineering
challenges.”

And none of this addresses the psychological difficulties of prolonged space travel: the
dynamics of a small crew in a sealed space combined with isolation from loved ones and
the world back home. “Being in space for ten days has almost nothing in common to living
on the Space Station for long periods of time,” says Kelly. “I’ve been in space with 40
people, and some of them don’t do that great. I don’t think it’s a place for just anyone, or
that anyone can live and work for long periods of time. It takes a certain type of person.”

Plus, he adds, there’s the jack-of-all-trades skill set required for those spending weeks or
months alone or in small groups. “You need to not only be the pilot,” Kelly says. “You need
to be the mechanic, the plumber, the electrician, the IT person, the doctor, the dentist. I
mean, you need to be a very multi-skilled, well-rounded individual who can also deal very
well with adversity.”

Three days after my tourist flight, I reboard G-Force One, along with six scientific research
groups, to get a chance to observe others actually trying to get some work done in
weightlessness. On G-Force One, you never leave the planet’s gravitational field, of course.
What the jet achieves is controlled, high-speed free-fall. Once airborne, it flies a series of
roller coaster-style parabolas, climbing at a 45-degree angle (about three times that of a
typical passenger jet’s ascent), reaching a peak, then streaking down the other side of a ten-
mile-long hill. During the brief interval when the plane approaches the top of the parabola
and noses over, the plane falls out of the way of its occupants at exactly the same rate its
passengers are falling to Earth, and for those seconds, the aircraft wipes away the effect of
gravity.

G-Force One gives scientists their best chance to work in zero gravity without having to go
to the Space Station, and they pay tens of thousands of dollars, often using grants from
NASA, for the privilege of performing experiments 27 seconds at a time. One group, led by
an emergency room doctor from Richmond, Virginia, and assisted by undergraduates from
Purdue University, is testing a system for reinflating a collapsed lung in zero gravity,
complete with pints of expired blood. Researchers from Carthage College, in Wisconsin,
are testing a new method to use sound waves to gauge the fuel in a spacecraft’s tank, which
is notoriously hard to measure in zero gravity. A group from the Applied Physics
Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University is testing a technology to allow small probes that
land on asteroids to reposition themselves in ultra-low gravity without pogo-ing back into
space.

Carefully padded boxes containing each group’s experiments are loaded through the
plane’s cargo door and bolted to the floor. The Zero Gravity staff installs straps and
handholds near the experiments, so researchers can work their equipment or tend their
laptops as the plane soars in and out of zero gravity. But no matter how much planning has
been done, how veteran the crews are or how much Velcro the equipment is secured with,
the first flight parabolas are total chaos. It’s hard to get the equipment to work, it’s hard to
keep oriented, it’s hard to simply type and stay in one place.

This interpretation of a future space station captures “the sheer ambition of the new

space pioneers,” says the artist. (Sam Chivers)

The G-Force One crew always books several days of research flights back-to-back, because
researchers return from Day 1 astonished at what they’ve learned, or failed to learn, and
spend the afternoon refining their equipment and procedures so they can take better
advantage of Day 2.

Marsh Cuttino, the Virginia doctor leading the lung experiment, sets up his equipment
near the back of the plane. Inside a polycarbonate box are three pints of blood in a pouch,
which is attached via plastic tubes to a clear, funnel-shaped plastic device of Cuttino’s
design, about the size of a shoebox, which in turn is attached via more tubes to a suction
pump.

When somebody’s lung collapses after an accident, doctors insert a chest tube to drain the
blood and air that’s leaked into the chest cavity and is preventing the lung from reinflating.
The procedure is relatively straightforward in an Earth-bound ER. In space, it’s
dramatically complicated by the fact that without gravity, blood withdrawn from a patient
is dangerously filled with air bubbles and cannot then be safely retransfused.

Cuttino’s device, now in its third iteration, is designed to separate an injured space
traveler’s blood from air, allowing the lung to reinflate, and collect the blood inside the
funnel for transfusion. If it works, the pump will pull blood into the funnel, which has
plastic ribs running along its interior, creating extra surface to slow the blood while air
percolates out and is sucked through the device’s other end.

Cuttino and his students video the process so they can study how the blood flows through
the device, which is impossible to observe in detail when flying up and over 25 parabolas.

On Day 1, somebody sets the suction pump on a setting that’s too high—and all the blood is
quickly sucked through the apparatus. Then Cuttino’s students get airsick. On the second
day, having readjusted the suction pump, Cuttino finds that the device’s new design works
perfectly for the first time—the blood is cleanly emptied from its pouch and collected inside
the funnel. “The effectiveness turned out to be much more geometrically dependent than
we predicted it would be,” Cuttino says afterward. “That’s exactly the kind of thing we
couldn’t have figured out without going to zero gravity.”

And yet 27 seconds of zero gravity, even repeated 25 times in a row, has its limits for
extrapolating a device’s usefulness in real-world situations, and Cuttino has already
contracted with Blue Origin to fly a fully automated version of the experiment on a New
Shepard rocket later this year; that will yield three minutes of uninterrupted zero gravity.

Paul Reichert, a research scientist at Merck pharmaceuticals, has been an advocate for zero
gravity drug development for 25 years. Weightless drug manufacturing, he says, would
enable engineers to better control chemical processes, especially when it comes to
synthesizing complicated large-molecule medicines. Reichert has never left Earth, but he
has designed more than a dozen experiments performed by astronauts aboard the space
shuttle and the International Space Station. Still, progress is slow. “I’ve done 14
experiments in space in 24 years,” he says. “I can do 14 experiments in a day here on
Earth.”

Kelly hopes that more pharmaceutical experiments will be done on the Space Station, but
he says an even better research site is the Moon: “It’s perfectly designed, and placed at a
good distance. It’s got a sixth of the gravity of Earth, and has no atmosphere.” And if we are
really trying to get to Mars, there isn’t a better lab for experimentation. “It seems like a
perfect place to practice.”
One of the most alluring opportunities for transforming exploration in Earth orbit and
beyond comes from an old industry—mining. Even near space is full of rocks containing
huge amounts of precious materials, including metals such as iron, gold and platinum.

Chris Lewicki, the CEO of Planetary Resources, aims to figure out how to tap those
asteroids. Before he co-founded the company, in 2009, Lewicki spent nine years as a NASA
engineer, including as flight director of the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. For the
time being, Planetary Resources is focused on arguably the most valuable resource for
space exploration—water, which can easily be separated into hydrogen and oxygen to make
rocket fuel. An asteroid as small as a kilometer across could contain enough water to make
more fuel than has been used by all the rockets ever launched, Lewicki says. Space outposts
will also need water for drinking, sanitation and as a source of oxygen, for breathing. And
in space, water is easy to transport, because it’s found as ice. Just harvest the ice
robotically and haul it back to a mostly automated processing facility, where a handful of
human tenders might cycle in for short stints of a few weeks at a time.

“Water is the first step,” Lewicki says. “But after that, there’s plain old construction
metals—iron, nickel. Not to bring to Earth, but to use in space.”

Planetary Resources is a few years from launching its first prospecting satellite, which will
scout for water on nearby asteroids. And Lewicki acknowledges that a series of
technological innovations, from robot asteroid miners to refillable rocket fuel tanks, need
to be developed before a self-sufficient space economy takes hold. But he insists it will
happen, and asteroid mining will play a critical role: “The leap we’re making is that this is
all going to scale one day to millions of people living and working in space. And the only
way to do that is to use ‘on-site’ resources.”

NASA flew zero G “vomit comets” from 1959 to 2014, but it now pays for research

flights on G-Force One (pictured loading scientific cargo). (Bob Croslin)

His vision, he says, is space’s equivalent of the Interstate System of highways. “What an
enormous investment that was. But how it transformed personal and commercial
transportation in the U.S.” And that, in turn, transformed cities, markets, whole
economies, even the way we see ourselves, as mobile citizens.
It’s worth remembering that sometimes single companies, headed by single-minded
personalities, really do drive massive change. Think of Ford, Netscape, Google. “Here’s
what’s incredibly important about Jeff Bezos’ presence in the industry right now,” says
Christensen, of Bryce Space and Technology. “It doesn’t really matter to him whether you
think what he’s doing makes sense or not. He doesn’t need your money.”

Lewicki believes the vision of a new space economy is real. “It’s inevitable,” he says. “It’s
definitely inevitable. I’m upset it hasn’t happened already.”

A few parabolas into my G-Force One tourist flight, I arrange myself face-down instead of
on my back. As we soar over a crest, I feel gravity let go of my body, like being scanned by a
force field. I use an index finger to cast off, just a poke at the mat, and suddenly I’m a foot
off the floor. I ease into a sitting position. Others around me have begun to get the hang of
it and are doing tricks. Someone drifts my way and I redirect him with a single touch.

During the next loop, I fish a notebook from my thigh pocket and park it in the air
right in front of me while I retrieve a pen from another pocket. Then I reach over
and pluck my notebook from exactly the spot where I’d left it floating. I’ve been
counting on gravity for 487,464 hours of my life, and after four minutes of zero G,
it is the most natural thing in the world to set my notebook adrift in midair and
expect it to be there seconds later.

One thing that’s surprising, I realize later, is there’s no sense of falling. There’s not
even a fear of falling, the way some people feel looking over the edge of a tall
building. You’re floating up there at the top of the plane, yet your body sends no
signals of alarm.

Instead you are totally released from all force, from all pressure—in zero gravity,
you have the freedom of a helium balloon, you are the helium balloon, and you can
feel that sense of freedom, not just in your gut but in your joints, your muscles, on
your skin, inside your mind.

It’s like meditation for the whole body, a Zen trampoline, and I don’t want it to end.