26 September 2000
The Arts Catalyst's pioneering work in opening new environments to artists was focused in 2000/2001 on space: the space agencies, research scientists and space industries. One of the outcomes was our first parabolic 'zero gravity' flight, organised for choreographer Kitsou Dubois in September 2000 with the Yuri Gagarin Centre in Star City, Russia, in collaboration with Projekt Atol Flight Operations, Slovenia.
To train cosmonauts to perform experiments and investigations in real conditions of space flight - zero gravity - in Earth conditions, the Gagarin Training Centre uses a special flying laboratory on a parabolic trajectory. The IL-76 MDK is a very large aircraft specially adapted for parabolic flight.
A parabolic flight creates the conditions of zero gravity - otherwise only experienced for any length of time in orbit or space travel - by putting an aircraft into a series of diving manoeuvres. Parabolic flights are undertaken by a handful of space agencies around the world specifically for astronaut/cosmonaut training and scientific experiments. During each parabola, bodies and objects inside the aircraft float freely for 25 - 30 seconds. A flight will have between 10 and 30 parabolas.
Many people experience severe discomfort in microgravity - nausea, disorientation and sickness are common.
This experimental flight had arisen out of a collaborative research project between Kitsou Dubois and the Biodynamics Group at Imperial College, London, looking at the control of movement of the body in altered gravities.
As well as Kitsou Dubois, three dancers - Matturin Bolze, Laura Nercy and Jorg Muller - and cameraman Eric Duranteau, the Arts Catalyst also invited Slovenian theatre director Dragan Zivadinov, physics professor Susan McKenna-Lawlor from the University of Ireland, video artist Mike Stubbs, astronautics lecturer Chris Welch from Kingston University, Slovenian artist Marko Peljhan, Russian speaker Stella Wilkins, Radio 4 journalist Emma Jane Kirby, and Nicola Triscott from the Arts Catalyst.
Our preparatory day at Star City comprised talks and discussions about the flight and what we wished to achieve and setting up the plane. It included a detailed discussion of Kitsou's planned movement protocol. We had arranged for 15 parabolas, although the Russians warned us that, with so many people new to zero gravity in our group, it was possible that we would not make that number.
The group was told not to drink any alcohol the day before the flight and to eat a light breakfast on the morning of the flight. Travel sickness medication was taken by the dancers and the rest of our group before the flight. Take-off was smooth and the aircraft climbed to between 25 and 35000 feet to a block of clear airspace before it began the manoeuvre the Russians call "gorka" ("hill"). We took off our parachutes, worn for take-off, and these were strapped down. The dancers took their places in a section of the plane carefully prepared with white floor covering, straps for foot/hand-holds, several fixed video cameras and a net preventing others from floating accidentally into the dance space.
There is a countdown before zero gravity and bright lights come on. At the end of the 25 or so seconds of zero gravity, klaxons are sounded to let you know that 2G is imminent. The trainers are there to ensure that everyone is on the floor before 2G arrives, as to fall from any height in 2G is very dangerous, particularly falling onto someone.
The onset of zero gravity is sudden and the state of weightlessness is either exhilarating or alarming. Some people are fine with it, others feel nauseous, panicky or disorientated.
The transitions between the gravity states are swift and extreme. After 2 parabolas, one of our group was looking extremely pale and concerned. By parabola 6, she was being watched carefully by the doctors. Others were also being sick in the periods between parabolas, although most were still coping well during zero gravity itself.
After 13 parabolas, it was apparent that the group member who had shown problems in the early stages of the flight was in bad shape. Both doctors were attending to her and whilst, when conscious, she insisted the flight be continued, they were becoming increasing concerned. As her blood pressure and pulse and body temperature began to drop, the doctors made the decision to stop the flight and we returned to the ground.
Despite losing 2 parabolas, Kitsou and her dancers had completed most of their planned work. Despite the limitations of time and the difficulties of filming in weightlessness, the flight has produced some fascinating and beautiful images of complex movement in microgravity.
For complete information on the second parabolic flight, please log onto: