Imagine boarding what appears to be a normal transport plane only to find the interior fully padded and chock full of apparatus, measuring equipment and bright lights. You're decked out in a flight suit and every pocket has a barf bag stuffed into it. After takeoff you fly out over the Gulf of Mexico where the pilot executes a radical 50 degree climb that makes you sink into your seat at about twice your normal weight. Shortly after that, the plane eases over the top into a steep dive which has the effect to make you weightless ... wow! .... you're floating!. You've arranged for your experiment to be first, so you are free to do what you want for the remainder of the flight. Free to do what you want means starting at the back bulkhead and flying through the entire length of the cabin and ending with somersaults. There's no opting out. Once airborne you are committed to 40 parabolas where you get almost 30 seconds of weightlessness each time. What are the barf bags for? You find out soon enough and by the time it is over, you are the only one who hasn't used one!
I've flown in the Vomit Comet three times. You may be wondering what exactly is the Vomit Comet. The Vomit Comet is the nickname for a specially outfitted airplane operated by NASA that simulates zero gravity conditions by flying giant parabolas through the air over the Gulf of Mexico. It was an amazing experience.
Turns out that over half the astronauts that fly into space experience some level of motion sickness. In the mid-80's I volunteered to be a human guinea pig to study motion sickness at NASA in the hopes that:
- ground based tests could improve prediction on whether a candidate would get sick
- positive (or negative) effects of medication on motion sickness
Interestingly, there is motion sickness scale that is attributed to Senator Jake Garn. Most that experience post launch nausea get over it pretty quickly (within a day or so). Not so for Mr. Garn as he spent most of his time velcro'd to the side of the spaceship. On the "Garn Scale", a ONE means you feel pretty normal and a TEN means you are totally incapacitated. There was even a Doonesbury strip called "Barfin' Jake Garn.".
I could go on and on about the Vomit Comet, the ground based spinning tests and the effects of hypoxia experienced in the altitude chamber (now there's a story worth telling!!), but let's get on to the 3 lessons from the experience.
1. Find out what everyone else is doing, then go do something else. I think of my entire career as searching for that niche. There weren't very many people flying around in the Vomit Comet back in the mid-80's (or today for that matter). Not many people building multimedia frameworks in the early 90's. Or doing hi-perf/low power SOCs in the late 90's, or HD video in 2005, or cloud based video infrastructure in 2013. You get the idea. Stay away from the crowds and find interesting people to do hard things with.
2. Biz/Life is full of ups and downs. There is no feeling like that of pushing over the top at 30,000 feet only to be followed by the crushing weight of gravity pulling up. It's the same with every project that I've worked on. Some can get really dark before the miracle breakthrough(s). The miracles have always come.
3. Predicted outcomes rarely match the real world. I don't think the ground based NASA tests correlated to motion sickness in the Vomit Comet (or space). Similarly, every plan I've seen was flawed in some way (sometimes many ways). Rely on historical financial/engineering data rather than an Excel generated picture of the future. The later seldom meets or exceeds expectations.
And here's a bonus learned lesson:
BONUS. Don't be afraid to use the barf bag. The crew on the Vomit Comet insisted on keeping a tidy and CLEAN airplane. It's all good if you hit the barf bag. Business is messy too. Clean up your own mess.
BTW, there is a commercial venture that offers zero-g flights. It's not cheap at $5,000. Alternatively, it's included with your Virgin Galactic ticket.