Electronic dance music is thumping out of the subwoofers. Superstar DJ Steve Aoki is on the decks. Colored lights are flashing across the room.
It’s just your regular dance party — right up until the moment when everyone starts floating.
Then Aoki’s long hair takes on a life of its own as the DJ performs backflips in mid-air. In front of him, people are actually dancing on the ceiling, or at least trying to as other club-goers bump into them, arms flailing as they hover uncontrollably.
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What’s being billed as the world’s first zero-gravity dance party (although organizers of a 2016 beer commercial beg to differ) is taking place on board a hollowed-out Airbus A310 airplane normally used for scientific research by the European Space Agency, or ESA.
Genuine, serious astronauts are among those getting down to the crazy techno beats as the aircraft plummets through the sky on free-fall maneuvers designed to induce weightlessness.
And, by all appearances, those astronauts absolutely love it.
CNN Travel also managed moonwalk its way in to the hottest dance party on (or off) the planet. OK… tried to moonwalk.
So how did we all get here, busting some moves in zero-G?
The flight, organized with the help of ESA and the airplane’s operator Novespace, was the work of BigCityBeats, a German promotion company whose annual World Club Dome electronic dance music festival in Frankfurt claims to be the “largest club in the world.”
Dance party in space
While looking for outrageous ways to promote the June 1-3, 2018 event, BigCityBeats CEO Bernd Breiter stumbled on a TV show about astronauts and, after daydreaming about putting on a dance party in space, came up with the idea of using a zero-gravity flight.
He says more than 30,000 people entered a video competition to grab a place on the flight, with 14 winners from places including Australia, South Korea, England and the United States eventually passing the stringent medical requirements for taking part.
“It was so crazy at first I didn’t have the courage to tell anyone,” Breiter tells CNN Travel in Frankfurt Airport on the eve of the party as winners gather for a pre-flight safety briefing.
Surprisingly, ESA was open to the idea. While the Zero-G jet is normally used to train astronauts or conduct experiments, it’s also available to hire, recently seeing action in Tom Cruise movie “The Mummy,” when it was disguised as an out-of-control C-130 cargo plane.
“Our first reaction was, ‘What?’,” says French astronaut Jean-Francois Clervoy, a veteran of the Space Shuttle program and by far the coolest person involved in the zero-G dance party experience.
“Then we realized it must be possible as there are no rules of physics or civil aviation that say no, so let’s make it happen.”
At the safety briefing, Clervoy, fellow astronaut Pedro Duque of Spain and pilot Eric Delesalle explain how a zero gravity flight works.
The A310 flies in a parabolic curve, inclining steeply at angles of up to 50 degrees on full throttle to reach an altitude of about 32,000 feet.
Flattened by hypergravity
During the sharp ascent, they warn, everyone on board experiences hypergravity, pinned to the floor as their bodies feel almost twice as heavy as usual.
The airplane then reaches an “injection” point and begins to pitch forward, eventually free falling down to a height of 24,000 feet. During this transition everyone on board experiences 20-30 seconds of beautiful, floaty weightlessness.
Clervoy, who has clocked up more than 3,000 zero-G flights reassures us it’s all completely safe. The 30-year-old A310 airplane is perfectly capable, even if more modern fly-by-wire planes have safety systems that block the maneuver.
There are a few unusual rules to heed.
First, everyone is to be issued with a barf bag that they must keep with them all times. Zero-G flights are known as “vomit comets” for their sometimes nausea-inducing effects.
Secondly, the onboard restrooms are out of action. Since zero gravity means potential spillage of toilet contents, any business needs to be done in a bag.
And no booze the night before — and obviously no drugs either, unless they’re to treat motion sickness.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” says Stuttgart, Germany-based radio DJ Rob Green, who’s also coming along for the ride. “Let’s hope we keep everything inside.”
When morning rolls around, the 14 winners plus other passengers and crew gather in Terminal 2 of Frankfurt Airport, where the zero-gravity flight has its own check-in desk issuing boarding passes. The flight is even listed on the airport’s departure board.
Celebrity DJs now join the group — Steve Aoki, plus Wardt van der Harst and Willem van Hanegem, a Dutch duo known as W&W. Missing is Armin van Buuren, another blockbuster DJ, who can’t make it due to illness.
“I’m just going to wing it,” Aoki tells CNN Travel. “When you play a club or a festival, you play with gravity and you can see the vibe because you can see how people move about. But with this one, they’re just going to be floating around.”
After clearing security, we’re bussed out under brilliant, icy sunshine to where the airplane, callsign F-WNOV, is waiting. Inside, we take seats in the cramped rear compartment where we need to be belted in for takeoffs and landings.
The rest of the airplane’s interior — an area of 100 square meters lined by white cushions — is now the dance club. Large subwoofer speakers and a set of mixing decks have been positioned at the far-end, behind the cockpit.
Pink, purple and green lights flash and bass beats throb through the cabin.
There’s a delay until the big event. We need to make a brief landing at France’s Strasbourg airport to comply with aviation regulations, but the DJs and competition winners get a chance to warm up in “normal conditions,” pounding the sky-high dance floor to rave rhythms.
The crew cautiously measures the sound level at about 100 decibels — as loud as a jet engine — and checks the movement of the cabin floor as dancers bounce up and down. Reassured, they visibly relax and begin swaying to the beats.
When the signal comes — intoned by a specially pre-recorded sexy female voice — that we’re heading into zero-G, everyone lies down to brace for hypergravity. It’s an intense rush, heightened by the insistent beats of the electronic music, as the G-force pushes down hard and then eases into weightlessness.
Dancing on the ceiling
Pre-planned dance moves are discarded as everyone tries to figure out how this new sensation works. For nearly half a minute of sheer joy, we ricochet off the cabin walls and each other. Then gravity kicks back in hard and we all drop to the floor like corpses.
Over the course of 90 minutes, the pilots complete the maneuver 16 times, allowing everyone to refine in-air tricks like trying to dance on the ceiling, floating in the lotus position or just goofing around.
Competition winner Christopher Purdy, a 30-year-old trampoline acrobat from Las Vegas, steals some of the limelight with his self-designed LED suit, but even he struggles to execute rehearsed moves in unfamiliar weightlessness.
Florence Macauley, a lively and elegant professional dancer on terra firma, is completely thrown by the zero-G experience and spends some of the flight sidelined by nausea.
Others, like South Korean student Myoung Jung Lee, 25, and his cuddly rabbit mascot Dopey, just go for it. They leap to their feet when normal gravity returns and punch the air to the music, an unstoppable energy pulsing through the increasingly sweaty fug of the cabin.
Most of us learn to negotiate the chief hazard, which is finding yourself upside down on the ceiling when the plane pulls out of its dive. DJ Wardt van der Harst learns the hard way, whacking down painfully hard on his back after confusing up with down.
Aside from one brief moment of dead-air before a downed Aoki manages to scramble back to the decks, the music never lets up, even if the DJs struggle to work their tunes during weightlessness.
“It was impossible to control anything,” W&W’s Willem van Hanegem says later, when we’re all back in Frankfurt. “Maybe if we did about eight more of these flights, we’d get the hang of it.
“I wouldn’t have missed it for anything,” he adds. “It’s the greatest thing we’ve done. All the other gigs, playing on a truck or a train or whatever, are going to be easy after this.”
No one hurls either — a rarity on a zero-G flight and something the astronauts credit to the distracting power of the dance music.
Strange new worlds
The competition winners, still feeling gravity wobbles in their legs despite being back on solid ground, speak of highs that ordinary club-going is never likely to eclipse.
“It was really amazing, everything I’d hoped for,” says Alicia McDonnell, a 20-year-old makeup artist from Bristol, England. “But also really annoying because nothing else I can ever experience will beat that.”
While the whole zero-G dance party may have been a gimmick, laid on by a club promotion company that has previously used trains, planes and cruise ships to promote its insanely lucrative brand, astronaut Clervoy is quick to point out that there is a benefit to humankind.
More than a third of Novespace’s income from the flight goes towards funding new science flights, he says.
“This was the first for us, it was a big event,” Clervoy adds. “In space we say we are exploring strange new worlds and boldly going where no man has gone before, and that’s what we did today. I think the music was the perfect factor to unite people.”
But is this a one-off, or could this open up a new frontier for science, aviation and dance music?
BigCityBeats boss Bernd Breiter isn’t sure, but 59-year-old Clervoy — a man who has spent a total of 675 hours in space, orbiting the Earth on three Shuttle missions and repairing the Hubble space telescope — has a very clear idea of the future.
“Now I’m going to try to learn to DJ myself to deliver music in a weightless environment,” he tells CNN Travel.
Move over Steve Aoki, another superstar DJ is ready for takeoff.