If you’re planning to experience total weightlessness in the near-future, I have a few tech tips that you should keep in mind.
On Jan. 31 I was lucky enough to be invited by HP to be one of several members of media that joined HP executives and engineers on a Zero Gravity Corp. (Zero-G) flight. By executing a parabolic flight path (re: the plane flies up at a sharp angle and then nose dives), this Space Adventures subsidiary is able to create zero-gravity conditions similar to those experienced on the International Space Station for 20-30 seconds at a time. Flights like this are required astronaut-training and also very fun.
Zero-G says it’s facilitated such an experience for about 15,000 people. Add scientists that have experienced zero-gravity on similar research flights, astronauts, and Kate Upton, and the list of people who’ve felt zero-gravity still isn’t very long. Now that I’m privileged enough to be included in that group, I can provide future zero-gravity adventurers with a few tech tips.
When portrait mode doesn’t apply
Accelerometers are useless in zero-gravity. The sensors in your smartphones or smart watches that are used to determine the physical location and orientation of your device depend on gravity to work properly. From a user perspective, this creates habits that are not helpful in a zero-gravity environment.
The most common example of this on my flight – stocked full of HP engineers and tech journalists – was when participants were attempting to frame their photos and videos with their smartphones. Normally when you rotate a smartphone from portrait or vertical orientation to a horizontal or landscape orientation, an accelerometer swivels and your screen pivots to fill the entire display. This feature is commonly called “auto-rotate” and in some cases can be turned on or off by a physical switch on the side of the device.
Of course in zero-gravity, there is no relative vertical or horizontal position for your device. The result of this was people floating through the air, pointlessly turning their smartphones around (manipulating the orientation from their own perspective) and wondering why the display didn’t shift. The takeaway here is to turn off your auto-rotate feature on your smartphone if you plan to take it with you into a zero-gravity situation.
(Though I chose to follow the advice of the Zero-G staff and leave my smartphone behind. Rather than waste time taking a selfie in the limited time of being in zero-gravity, it’s better to just experience it. Of course, I also had two GoPro cameras strapped to my body to capture my experience for posterity.)
Strap tech to your body
Rather than bring a smartphone, consider strapping a GoPro camera (or something similar) to your body. To capture video of my experience, I wore both a head-mounted camera and a chest-mounted camera.
The straps available for GoPro cameras are excellent at keeping the cameras comfortably in place on your body as you bounce around the hollowed-out metal tube of a 727. The cases that lock cameras in place are difficult to pry open on purpose, let alone by some accidental snag.
Keeping a handle on devices, or any small object, will be a challenge when you’re floating around weightless. Especially when you’re on a parabolic flight that alternates between the extremes of zero-gravity and 1.8x gravity every 30 seconds or so. If you let your smartphone slip, it won’t be a simple matter of bending over to scoop it up off the floor. It will likely shoot to the back of the aircraft.
During my flight, I was trying to track a bottle of water through a couple of parabolas. Then upon entering zero-gravity and scrabbling around the plane’s ceiling in a maneuver called “the hamster wheel” I lost track of it and was unable to locate it for the remainder of the flight.
Bolt your printer to a fixed surface
HP organized our flight with Zero-G as a way to celebrate its accomplishment in manufacturing a new printer (an adapted Envy) that will be used on the International Space Station. It’s traveling to space on a Space X rocket later this year.
Unfortunately, the printer wasn’t onboard our flight for a demonstration. But in talking to the engineers and researchers that were involved in its testing, I understood some of the challenges related to printing in zero-gravity. (And let’s face it, printing can often be challenging enough in normal gravity).
Because every force is accompanied by an equal and opposite reaction, printers can’t just sit on a desk in zero-gravity. First of all, they’d float away. Second of all, when something printed, it would cause the printer to propel itself through space as it pushed the paper through. So bolt that printer down, as it will be on the ISS.
HP also had to devise a way to keep the printer paper in its tray, instead of allowing it to float through space. A simple retaining cage serves this purpose, a piece that HP created with a 3D printer using a material that combines nylon with microscopic glass beads. This material gives the tray the combination of strength and flexibility that’s perfect for its environment. A rounded design ensures no astronaut will become snagged on it as they float by.
In the end, my real recommendation is that you should leave the tech behind for a zero-gravity flight. The urge to capture the moment is understandable, but it’s more rewarding to just be present and absorb the experience. Plus, Zero-G uses its own cameras affixed to the aircraft walls, and an onboard professional photographer to document the experience.
Full disclosure: HP paid for Brian Jackson’s zero-gravity experience and travel to Palo Alto, Calif. to visit its headquarters.