By Tim Hepher and Lucien Libert
BORDEAUX, France (Reuters Life!) - Europe plans to enter the fledgling space tourism market by offering a chance to experience weightlessness to help pay for scientific research.
With Europe's space ambitions facing a budget squeeze due to the weak economy, the plan to mix science with adventure was unveiled in a "zero G" flight for European space agency chiefs on a converted Airbus jet, to which Reuters was granted access.
Brief doses of weightlessness without going into space have been available for decades on specially converted airliners such as NASA's "Vomit Comet," which trained a generation of American astronauts and was used to film "Apollo 13."
Now such flights are increasingly used for research or to prepare equipment for the International Space Station.
Novespace, a unit of France's CNES space agency which hosted the flight, claims to be leading the field in scientific deployment with a converted Airbus A300 jetliner. It carries out part of its work for the 17-nation European Space Agency.
"This Airbus is a scientific research lab. It is unique in Europe and is the biggest aircraft in the world to provide weightlessness for the scientific community," French astronaut and Novespace director Jean-Francois Clervoy told Reuters.
To achieve weightlessness French test pilots fly the Airbus along a series of parabolic arcs in an air corridor over the Atlantic, resembling an 8,000-foot high roller coaster.
Passengers feel twice their normal weight during the steep climb and descent but experience 22 seconds of weightlessness along the crest of the arc when engine power is sharply reduced.
"Today there are no regulations that authorize this, but a few times a year we could have exceptional authorization where we mix science and demonstrations for observers," Clervoy said, adding he hoped to start public flights within a year.
The price tag would be 3,000 euros (S$5,646 or US$3,869) for 30 parabolas or 22-second bursts of weightlessness -- 11 minutes in all.
Trips like these cost a fraction of the US$30-35 million paid by wealthy individuals for the ultimate ride into orbit. But the only difference with weightlessness as felt in space is the time spent afloat, said Clervoy, a veteran of three Shuttle missions.
A U.S. company, Florida-based Zero Gravity Corp, has offered low-gravity or weightless flights to the public since 2006.
Clervoy said the Novespace ticket sales would not aim to make a profit but would help sponsor research carried on board.
By inviting space officials from eastern and northern Europe for a ride, Novespace hoped to attract new scientific projects on board the plane which is mainly used by France and Germany.
The move came weeks ahead of a European ministerial meeting that faces tough decisions about priorities for space spending amid pressure on national budgets. The ESA's 3 billion euro annual budget is around a fifth of NASA's civil expenditure.
Research conducted during the flight included experiments funded by European nations to combat high blood pressure, produce better microchips or find out how to grow plants in space for future 2- or 3-year manned missions to Mars.
"This plane has capacities for our common work on space in Europe. Very important discoveries have been made thanks to microgravity," CNES director Yanick d'Escatha told Reuters.
During the flight human 'guinea pigs' of different heights had their blood pressure taken in both zero and double gravity.
"It is ideal to use parabolic flights because you can change the gravitational stress from zero to 2," said Peter Norsk of Copenhagen University, who is taking part in a project to find out why high blood pressure kills seven million people a year.
"One purpose is to understand whether your body height determines blood pressure regulation; if it is the case then we know that gravity may play a major role in hypertension."
(Editing by Paul Casciato)