Zero Gravity Corp. could conduct up to 80 flights for NASA this year

on a modified Boeing 727 aircraft to provide brief periods of weightlessness for agency

experiments and personnel under an initial

contract worth up to

$4.7 million.

Since 2004, Las Vegas-based Zero Gravity Corp., or Zero-G, has been using its G-Force One aircraft to provide the weightless experience to around 3,000 paying customers including physicist Stephen Hawking and domestic-living maven Martha Stewart.

The indefinite quantity-indefinite delivery

contract with NASA, announced Jan. 2, includes four, one-year options, bringing the total potential value of the award to

$25.4 million

. NASA’s minimum commitment under the contract, according to Zero-G, is to buy a single week of four flights for around $300,000.

NASA plans to use the flights,

departing primarily from the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, to conduct a variety of microgravity experiments and help prepare astronauts for flights on the space shuttle and international space station, the agency said in a release.

John Schubert, chief of the space combustion and microgravity test engineering branch at Glenn, said

NASA has committed to

buying a minimum of four flights from Zero-G under the contract this year, but could buy as many as 80 under the terms of the deal.

Zero-G submitted a bid for the flight contract last year after NASA said it was looking for alternatives to operating its own parabolic aircraft, as it has done for decades.

NASA plans to continue to conduct microgravity flights aboard its own C-9 aircraft for the time being, agency spokeswoman Tabatha Thompson said. The

Zero-G flights will

complement NASA’s in-house capability, she said.

While the $4.7 million contract covers up to 80 flights this year, Schubert said it is unlikely NASA would buy that many flights from Zero-G.

If all goes smoothly, Schubert said, Zero-G could expect to conduct perhaps up to 40 flights for NASA in 2008 – about half the projected manifest – with the agency’s own Houston-based C-9s flying the rest.

“We are going in for around a 50-50 split,” Schubert said. “This is a new venture for Zero-G, meeting what I consider challenging [gravity force-level]

requirements, power requirements, etc. We need to make sure that all of our requirements can be met through this commercial venture.”

Schubert said it is too soon to tell

whether it will be

cheaper for NASA to fly

with Zero-G rather than use

its own aircraft. “I’d say right now it is definitely in the same ballpark and time will tell where it is going to end up,” Schubert said.

But Schubert did say

NASA’s decision to buy flights from Zero-G was based on more than

a simple cost-benefit analysis.

“NASA has a commercialization policy where it tries to acquire as many services and items from the commercial sector as possible,” he said. “This contract’s intent is to go ahead and use a commercially available service for this function.”

Zero-G officials were

thrilled having signed

up NASA as a


“We consider it a distinct honor to have the opportunity to participate in NASA’s scientific, education and training activities,” Peter Diamandis, Zero-G’s co-founder and chief executive officer, said in a statement. “We are excited about the important initiatives that we will be supporting and eagerly await our first flight with NASA aboard.”

Schubert said NASA will be ready to fly with Zero-G as soon as the company makes some minor

modifications required

to support NASA science flights. Examples include a port for venting combustion byproducts and installing in-cabin power outlets.

“As far as we are concerned, when they are ready to go and we have done our oversight of their preparations, then we are ready to go,” Schubert said.

Byron Lichtenberg, Zero-G’s co-founder and chief technical officer, said in a Jan. 3 interview that if NASA only buys the single flight week guaranteed under the contract, the company would lose money on the deal. While he declined to say exactly how many flights Zero-G would have to sell NASA to recoup its investment in the required aircraft modifications, he said Zero-G could see a positive return this year if NASA buys enough flights.