An 83-year-old West Bloomfield, N.Y. man got to feel what it's like to float in space and do push-ups on Mars on a once-in-a-lifetime zero gravity flight.
It was “one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind” when Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon.
That July 21, 1969, he and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin bounded across the lunar surface, leaping farther than anyone could ever jump on Earth. They inspired millions of people
who watched them plant the American flag.
Thomas Ely was 45. He remembers the videos that followed over the years as other astronauts went into space weightless, free, their feet drifting to the ceiling of the shuttles.
It’s a feeling experienced by only a few and astronauts — and now, Ely. The 83-year-old West Bloomfield man splurged recently on a zero-gravity vacation to discover what space travel is really like.
“I like to explore interesting things,” said Ely.
Ely went with Zero Gravity Corp., the only outfit in the United States that offers such trips. The company is based in Las Vegas and runs flights in various cities. Ely joined 35 or so other thrill seekers last November in New York City.
As a “zeronaut,” Ely donned a special blue jumpsuit to experience what it’s like to be on Mars (with one-third the earth’s gravity), the moon (one-sixth the earth’s gravity) and the ultimate lofty adventure of the final frontier — Zero G Space.
“You see astronauts in a zero-gravity environment,” said Ely. “The idea was always there.”
In a promotional video for Zero Gravity, former space shuttle commander Rick Seafross says he still dreams of being weightless — and that Zero Gravity flights mimic just what he felt.
Aldrin has also made the trip, as have Martha Stewart, British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and even Colonel Sanders for a Kentucky Fried Chicken commercial. “The Matrix” film sequels were filmed in the plane because of its unique atmosphere; actors could walk on walls.
“It’s not special effects,” says Zero G communications expert Natalie Mounier.
Flights cost about $3,900.
For many years, Ely had to think about his family and putting five kids through college.
“There were times I’d squeeze a nickel pretty hard before I’d spend it,” he said.
Now that he has the means to have such an adventure, he didn’t have to contemplate long before he bought a seat.
“I said to myself, ‘I ought to do that one day’,” said Ely. “Then I said to myself, ‘I’m 83 years old, I better do it pretty soon.’ So I did. I’d do it again.”
The journey didn’t surprise his daughter — Carolyn Ely of West Bloomfield — at all. She prefers to keep her feet on the ground, but her dad has long had roots in the sky. He piloted a Cessna for some 30 years.
“He’s very adventurous,” she said.
He and his fellow zeronauts divided into three groups, each group with its own section of the plane to play in. All told, the trip took about two hours, said Ely, and each participant was given a pill to prevent motion sickness.
The pilots have to reach about 2Gs, or twice the earth’s gravity, to dip down to reach lower gravity and weightlessness. It’s like the plane is driving along rolling hills.
The flight comes with a few no-nos. One, don’t “swim.” Moving your arms like you’re in a pool just doesn’t get you anywhere. And two, no jumping.
“If you jump, you’re just going to splat on the other side of the plane,” laughed Ely.
While the plane gained altitude, Ely lay down on mats on the floor; you can’t fall while lying down.
“You’re lying there thinking, ‘This doesn’t feel much different.’ Then you pick up your head, and you can’t,” said Ely.
He tried to move around, a little. “There was no point in doing any more,” he chuckled, “because I just couldn’t.”
First up — 30 seconds of Mars.
“That’s when I did my one-arm push-ups,” said Ely, who found he was suddenly much lighter.
He had two 30-second sessions to find out what it’s like to be on the moon.
“You’ve seen pictures of the guys on the moon bouncing along and they come down slowly,” said Ely. He was now one of them.
It all went by so fast, he doesn’t remember many details. Ely was treated to 12 sessions of zero gravity.
The crew tossed out M&Ms and splashed bottles of water into the plane so floating passengers could try to catch them in their mouths. Ely didn’t snag a candy or get a gulp, but others did. The water floats in the air but stays together because of surface tension in the same way raindrops keep their shape.
He was able to orient himself with the floor and ceiling during the Mars and moon sessions, but that all flew out the window at zero G. Ely touched the ceiling and was whisked about the cabin.
“It’s pretty random,” said Ely — a mishmash of people, drifting at all angles. “There’s humanity all over the plane.”
“I don’t know how you can put it into words really,” said Ely, who keeps his boarding pass and other mementos in a three-ring binder.
In one photo, he’s sitting with other zeronauts in the cabin, giving a thumbs-up. In another, he poses with a crewman beside the massive plane. He sent a letter to friends and family about the trip, including those photos and one of others hovering before the camera.
“It was just a fun thing to do,” he said, “and I say I might do it again.”
Contact Kris Dreessen at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 253, or at kdreessen@mpnewspapers .com.