Louise K. Wilson – On the History of Parabolic Flight and on Feeling Sick… – 2003


First publication symposium Visibility – Legibility of Space Art. Art and Zero G. : the experience of parabolic flights, in collaboration with the @rt Outsiders festival, Paris, 2003.

For some time now I have been interested in flight.

This has resulted in a number of artworks in which the desire to fly and the effects and sensations of doing so are central: the performance The Museum of Accidents in which a Microsoft employee ‘flew’ a flight simulator between two cities during a staged tea dance; a sculpture using telephone interviews with RAF (Royal Air Force) pilots of low flying jets about their memories of the same landscape; and current video and broadcast audio pieces about Air Traffic Control at an airport in the north of England. [1]

Although very different in media and scale, these artworks all sprang from a curiosity about how the technology of flight brings into focus particular aspects of our physiological states and psychological selves.

In this year of the 100th anniversary of the invention of powered flight, I have wanted to explore more emotive territory though: the intersection of flight with ideas of faith, belief and trust.

My motives for wanting to participate in the MIR 001 Arts Catalyst zero-g flight at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Facility, Moscow in 2001, however, started from an aching desire to do so as well as from slightly more dissociated origins. I had had an interest in the material effects of lack of gravity on the body, and the scientific study of this for a while….

From the mid-1990s onwards I made artworks informed by research into the physical and emotional effects of scientific experimentation for the scientist and subject – human and animal. I wondered about the protocols, methodologies and personal motivations of scientists and how far scientists are also changed by their experiments. The realm of (scientific) experimentation had seemed a closed world, but for me so much more knowable when viewed from inside the lab as a consenting subject. I voluntarily embarked on a number of medical experiments as a process of performance.

I had first become aware that it was possible to experience zero gravity on parabolic flight when visiting the Aerospace Medical Research Unit lab at McGill University in Montreal in 1994. I was participating in an experiment The Role of Vision and Neck Inputs during Adaptation to Motion Sickness, and was shown photographs of teams of stoic (sometimes beatific looking) experimenters in zero-g flights lining the corridor walls. For the experiment, I spent a week in the dark performing “provocative, self-generated movements” intended to provoke nausea, and slowly adapting to it, verbally rating my nausea on a scale from one to ten.

My proposed project on the MIR flight seven years later was to form part of an ongoing project involving subjective responses and use of language to describe the experience of the flight. As such I would be considering self and others as experimental subjects, using video and audio recording to conduct interviews – pre, during and post flight. I wanted to look again at how motion sickness affects the relationship with one’s own body, revealing its fault lines.

Conversations with scientists (those who had been into zero-g and those who hadn’t) before leaving for Russia yielded advice about anti-nausea medication, how what not to do with head movements to exacerbate nausea etc. I now decided I wanted to ask the ‘flyers’ about their dreams (pre and post flight) and the strange sensation of ‘flashback’.

The desire to become a pseudo-scientist/ observer on the flight actually became secondary as a project. Fortuitously I was recruited as subject for a study by Dr Anthony Bull of Imperial College, London. He devised an experiment to address two questions: spinal control as a response to gravity, and movement control in the absence of gravity. My subsequent experience of ‘performing’ as naive untrained subject (as control to a naïve trained subject, the dancer and aerial performer Morag Wightman) became the most important and fascinating experience.

On the return from Russia, my direction of interest became broader with the desire to find out about the early history of parabolic flight, and attempt to unpack the trajectory by which militarily-derived technologies are often picked up in the wider culture.

Certainly historically the US Space Program is rooted in large part in the concepts, research and development of Army and Air Force ballistic missile programs which in turn benefited from the German rocket development that took place during WW2.

An ESA (European Space Agency) video on Weightlessness, various emails with people contacted via the Science Museum in London; and written accounts by astronauts and cosmonauts have provided facts and anecdotes so far in my research.

At one stage, I also had the chance to seek out files on the KC-135 parabolic flight plane at the NASA History Office in Washington DC. It mainly contained endless photocopied press releases and magazine articles about college students trying to uncover laws of physics, chemistry etc in zero-g. The Space Medicine file offered quirkier reading pleasures – such as the letter from a congressman questioning the research and development costs of NASA’s sick bags…

The brief potted history I have pieced together so far then is eclectic and partial. It firstly touches on the German aircraft research of the 1940s, the unfortunate history of so much animal experimentation in aviation medicine, the escalated use of parabolic flight during the Space Race and after… It then notes the appearance of parabolic flight in cinema – Apollo 13 and a certain infamous porn film trilogy. It finishes with the advent of space tourism, and the commercial selling of the parabolic flight experience by Space Adventures.com.


[1] Museum of Accidents http://www.locusplus.org.uk/artists/1262~Louise+K.+Wilson


© Louise K. Wilson & Leonardo/Olats, October 2003, republished 2023