Not many aircraft captains give their passengers a rocket launch-style countdown before take-off, but this is no ordinary plane. For starters, everyone on board, apart from the crew, is a scientist and has passed a full medical check including a heart assessment. This is not a trip for nervous fliers.

The captain’s instructions refer to a manoeuvre so challenging it requires three pilots to be in the cockpit. The aircraft pulls up from a level flight into an incline at increasingly steep angles of 30, then 40 degrees. In the middle section, where the windows are blocked by a padded wall, everyone is either standing, sitting on the floor or lying down because the seats in this Airbus A310 have all been removed.

Several scientists are wearing caps covered in electrodes. Others, weirdly, have their arms inside open-ended boxes, and they appear to have three hands (more on this later). Many are staring intently at washing machine-sized metal contraptions with switches and screens.

Flight

The plane is injected into a parabolic arc. The noise level suddenly drops and the tone of the engine shifts higher as the aircraft free falls up and over the top of the arc. My body’s heaviness, increased by gravitational forces of 1.8G on the way up so it felt almost twice its normal weight, disappears.

Microgravity

Everyone onboard is experiencing microgravity, which is what astronauts encounter on the International Space Station (ISS). This zero G (zero gravity) aircraft, owned by Novespace, is the latest one used by the European Space Agency (Esa) to perform science experiments in microgravity and, to a lesser extent, astronaut training.

Astronauts Health

Physical fitness is important for astronauts but so is brain fitness and there are potential effects to consider from being in microgravity and also in isolation for longer durations. Long-term isolation can reduce cognitive performance but it has also been shown that during microgravity cognitive performance is increased. They are interested in the mechanisms behind that. Brain flow is increased in microgravity so we are looking at the link between them.

Astronauts In Space

As well as gaining a greater understanding of an astronaut’s performance in space, this knowledge has potential applications for designing better ways to help those with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.

For the final five parabolas the free-flight area, where I floated several times towards the ceiling, is off limits. The netting is removed because the German Mars Society is about to release a big shiny balloon. At least that is what it resembles when they test a deployment system for an inflatable space structure.

 Space Weightlessness

It is a wonder to watch. Once weightlessness kicks in on a parabolic arc, the tightly packed inflatable is shot out of a cylinder and a mass of concertina-style folded gold fabric fans unfurls into the air.

First time and the experiment provides invaluable information for a future mission. No one knew what it would do in zero G. They expected it to steadily move outwards from the container and steadily unfold but instead it came out, stayed a bit and then suddenly started unfolding.