In dozens of military and civilian laboratories across the U.S., researchers are working under pressure to perfect ways of keeping a human being alive and functioning efficiently when he soars into the void of space (TIME, May 26). None of their problems is as will-o'-the-wispy as weightlessness, the gravity-free state that will envelop man when he orbits around the earth or reaches for the moon and planets. Reason: in the earth's atmosphere and gravity belt, this unearthly state can be created only for a fraction of a minute at a time. To learn at firsthand how it is done and what it feels like, TIME's Medicine Editor Gilbert Cant went weightless in one of the Air Force's fast jet fighters. His account:
AT 500 knots the F-100F Super Sabre pulled out of its dive and rocketed upward. Up went the needle on the accelerometer or "g meter," which gauges the piling up of gravity forces. In a "g suit" hooked up to an automatic air-compressor system, I felt a giant's fist pressing into my belly, two pairs of giant hands around my thighs and calves, to retard the flow of blood to the feet and reduce the risk of blackout. Belatedly I remembered to try the "M1 maneuver"tensing the abdominal muscles to reduce the blood drainage still more. The g-meter needle crept up past 2 to 3 and on to 4. My normal 145 lbs. now weighed 580: I felt compressed, depressed. Even the light rubber ball of the pneumatic release for my camera shutter, held in my hand, seemed unbearably heavy. With the eyeballs tugged downward, with eyelids feeling like rusty iron curtains, it was an intense effort to peek "up" to keep watching the meters.
As we approached the peak of our climb, the relentless 4-g pressure was lifted and suddenly we slipped through a man-made loophole in the law of gravity: we weighed nothing at all.
Stringless Yo-Yo. We were in a weird state whose most experienced explorer is Major Herbert Stallings Jr. of the School of Aviation Medicine at Randolph A.F.B. (Texas). He has racked up a total of about 38 weightless hours. But bad weather and reassignment of planes had ruled out Major Stallings as my guide. Instead, I became the guest of the Tactical Air Command at Langley A.F.B., just inside the Virginia capes. Assigned to the project was Lieut. Colonel Devol ("Rock") Brett, skipper of the 355th Fighter Squadron and son of World War II's Lieut. General George H. Brett, now retired. West Pointer Brett, 34, veteran jet pilot, had hit the zero-gravity state for a few seconds on countless occasions, especially at the beginning of an outside loop, but he had never before been asked to try for zero gravity and hold it as long as possible. So the mission developed into a new experience for both pilot and passenger.