The term “vomit comet” is a playful relic of a time when human beings were making their first attempts at exploring space.
More specifically, the vomit comet refers to the plane the U.S. government and NASA used to train astronauts in the original Space Race. Notably, NASA’s plane pioneered the parabolic flight maneuvers which are still used today to create zero gravity environments.
While nausea wasn’t the goal of the vomit comet, it would however make some passengers nauseous–hence birthing its cheeky name, “the Vomit Comet.” The unintended side effect ultimately helped test which astronauts were better physiologically suited to be potentially blasted off into space with the first versions of spacecraft.
While today’s zero gravity flights still use similar parabolic maneuvers, they’re far from the first iterations of these weightless environment simulations– not unlike how a Ford Explorer offers a smoother ride than a 1908 Model T.
However, the story of the vomit comet is far cooler than just that– any search to understand why people call it the vomit comet yields some very interesting gold nuggets of space tech history.
“The” Vomit Comet: C-131 Samaritan Aircraft
The Vomit Comet’s origins come from two German scientist brothers, Fritz and Heinz Haber, who proposed that space’s microgravity could be simulated in airplanes making wave-like parabolic flight paths.
These theories proved to be highly effective and repeatable. Astronauts began training for weightlessness with planes simulating microgravity environments in 1957 under Project Mercury, in what would later become NASA’s Reduced Gravity Program.
Project Mercury was the United States’ first human spaceflight program (1958-1963) run by the Air Force at first, then absorbed into the newly-created NASA. It captured the attention of millions of Americans, and its missions were regularly followed on radio and TV around the world.
Project Mercury led to Project Gemini, which carried two astronauts and laid the groundwork for space docking maneuvers essential for the lunar landings in the following Apollo program.
In Project Mercury, astronauts were trained in a C-131 Samaritan aircraft, which is what received the vomit comet namesake. The plane and its nickname have both retired.
The Vomit Comet: A Dizzy History
Let’s travel back to the United States in the late 1950s.
Uncle Sam emerged from the World War II theatre a superpower cemented by a strong economy and military prowess.An evolving suburbia sprawled throughout the country. Millions of Americans were now connected by television sets. The handful of news channels largely gravitating towards the (mostly) non-military rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union– who would indirectly compete with proxy wars, scientific achievements, and military armaments for the latter half of the 20th century.
The United States stimulated one of the greatest focused R&D departments in history with one goal– to achieve dominant spaceflight capabilities.
The Arms Race and the Vomit Comet
The Space Race has its roots in the arms race. Both nations mobilized their industries to create rockets powerful and precise enough to carry ballistic missile-based nuclear (and non-nuclear) warheads on a target thousands of miles away.
Space offered a strategic strongpoint like no other– especially if the defending country didn’t have the means to stop an attack from directly above its key cities.
Spaceflight achievement was elevated to a necessity for national security, and it enraptured the patriotic heartbeat of new and old American generations.
Astronaut training on the vomit comet was seen as a small price to pay for what was viewed as a matter of national defense.
The New American Heroes
U.S. space-related achievements became symbolic of American patriotism and democracy. Engineers, scientists, and the cream of the crop, astronauts, were considered a new class of American heroes.
Some context is helpful to better understand why some of America’s smartest would sign up for something with a reputation like the vomit comet,
Many astronauts young and healthy enough for rigorous astronaut training in the late 1950s and 1960s were born sometime in the 1930s, often to military families that exuded pride in military service and active duty in the two World Wars.
For example: Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the first two men on the moon, both came from military backgrounds and served in the Korean War; Armstrong flew a Grumman F9F Panther with the Navy, Aldrin was the son of a World War I Army aviator, and would himself become jet fighter pilot flying 66 combat missions and shooting down two MiG-15 aircraft.
In addition to motivations for serving their country, potential astronauts were very ambitious and academically oriented, achieving engineering degrees to further their careers in the military-industrial complex.
The Space Race
A Soviet youth magazine in 1951 is often credited with sparking public interest in space travel. Quickly picked up by US magazines, the idea of extending the Cold War playing board to outer space soon energized the imaginations of politicians, military leaders, and the private sector.
On July 30th, 1955, the United States signaled its intent to launch artificial satellites, to which the Soviet Union responded that they would also launch satellites “in the near future.”
While much of the Space Race seemed to be a game of “Oh yeah? Us too!” it was still underpinned by the paramount prize– extending military dominance to the most strategic outposts yet.
The USSR would stir the West’s attention with a chain of early firsts– it got the first successful satellite launch, Sputnik1, in October 1957, and the first human, Yuri Gagarin, into space in April 1961.
John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960 catalyzed a crescendo in American space exploration. In May 1961, JFK asked Congress to commit to land a man on the Moon and bring him back safely to Earth by the end of the decade– which would be accomplished on July 16, 1969.
Is the Vomit Comet Still in Use?
The Convair C-131 Samaritan aircraft that inspired the vomit comet name is no longer made, and the Convair company doesn’t even exist today.
However, the Vomit Comet moniker was passed down to the KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft, which was used until December 2004 and subsequently retired.
Zero gravity flights are still being conducted today with more modern aircraft. Despite the vomit comet association still lingering, the experience on today’s flights are much more pleasant.
For example, Zero-G uses a modified Boeing-727, which is one the smoothest ways to conduct parabolas for zero gravity flights.
Final Thoughts: The Vomit Comet and Zero-G
Today’s zero gravity flights are much more comfortable than the ones used for training astronauts at a time when I Love Lucy was one of the most popular shows on TV.
However, not only has the equipment changed and the strategies been refined, the end goals are completely different.
Our technology to get people up to space is eons better than the first iterations. Rather than testing the limits of human physiology and the extent of the human spirit, today’s space tech is more focused on facilitating human life on the Moon and beyond or other for-profit endeavors.
For example, the vast majority of Zero-G flights are conducted either for fun or research. On any given week, we’ll host Weightless Weddings or industry-advancing experiments– with very rare, if any, cases of nausea.
However, we take our hats off to the time when humans were diving into the unknown head-first, training themselves with things like the vomit comet. The innovations brought to us from the Space Race include things from satellites and robotic space probes, and have pioneered a wide variety of inventions that have saved countless lives on Earth.