The amazing adventures of Zero-Gravity Rick

The idiom "let the chips fall where they may" became television reality for CBC comedian Rick Mercer and researchers from York University on Tuesday evening.

In a hilarious video segment aired on the comedian’s self-titled program, the "Rick Mercer Report", the mischievous Mercer travelled to Ottawa, donned a Canadian Space Agency jumpsuit and boarded an airplane, modified to simulate weightlessness, to experience the effects of zero gravity first-hand.

Above: Canadian comedian Rick Mercer experiences the thrills and spills of zero gravity first-hand. Photo courtesy of the "Rick Mercer Report", CBC Television.

Prior to the flight, Mercer spoke with Louise Beauchamp, CSA mission manager, about what it takes to be an astronaut. He also spoke to Tim Leslie, a pilot and the supervisor of flight operations & training with the National Research Council of Canada’s Institute for Aerospace Research, about parabolic flight and how zero gravity happens. The term "parabolic flight" refers to the profile which the plane flies, explained Leslie. When the plane falls over the top of the parabola, objects inside the cabin fall at the same rate as the gravitational pull and near-weightlessness occurs.

After hearing the flight details, a slightly greenish Mercer interviewed York Professor Laurence Harris (right), chair of the Department of Psychology in the Faculty of Health, and Postdoctoral Fellow Richard Dyde, about their research in zero gravity. Both Harris and Dyde are researchers affiliated with York’s Centre for Vision Research and are investigating the effects of zero gravity on perception.

"The CSA contacted us to see if we would be interested in the show," said Harris. "It offered a great opportunity for the space agency to highlight that Canada has a microgravity research facility and gave us a chance to talk about our experiments that will be heading to the space station this spring. It was also great fun."

In the interview with Mercer, Harris and Dyde described their research, which is looking into the three main factors that contribute to our sense of orientation: vision, gravity and the internal representation of the orientation of the body. Specifically, they are interested in what happens to our sense of what is up and what is down when gravity is taken away. They are also looking at how this perception might change over the course of long-term exposure to microgravity.

Armed with a specially designed research laptop, Dyde, who is a veteran of zero-gravity research, along with Mercer, climbed aboard the National Research Council’s aircraft, Falcon 20. After strapping himself in, the comic broke out the potato chips and an energy drink, opened his newspaper and settled in for the 45-minute flight. Then, over the course of his encounters with zero gravity, the comedian had to deal with flying potato chips and floating globules of the pink beverage. The good-natured Dyde, abandoning all hope of conducting any science, concentrated instead on plucking potato chips out of the air, corralling the floating bubbles of energy drink and, most importantly, keeping Mercer safe. "Science is fun!" shouted the excited comedian as he floated and somersaulted around the tiny cabin. "I played the straight guy to the comedian," chuckled Dyde. "Absolutely no science got done, but it was great fun. Rick was doing some crazy things and he did fantastically well. The poor cameraman got pretty ill as his vision became distorted because he had to view everything through the camera lens."

Dyde explained that under normal circumstances, researchers would not free float in the smaller cabin. There are specially equipped airbuses for that purpose (see YFile, Oct. 2, 2006). The CSA made an exception for Mercer and that meant Dyde’s role moved from being a researcher to a spotter as he guided the comedian through his free-floating escapade. At one point, the video shows Mercer playing a flute while sitting on a floating carpet guided by Dyde.

Between each episode of zero gravity, Dyde said that he and Mercer experienced the extreme drag produced by the sudden return of gravity. Known as transitions, these periods occur either side of the zero-gravity portion of the parabolic flight. "All the potato chips and everything in the cabin suddenly fall to Earth. The cabin isn’t padded so there can be some hard landings," laughed Dyde. Mercer and Dyde can be seen slumping in their seats at several points in the video. In one zero-gravity episode, Mercer opens his energy drink, only to experience the full effect of a transition as the floating globules suddenly splatter all over his face. "It was pretty funny," laughed Dyde.

It is interesting to note that during the flight, Mercer talked about thinking that he was upside down. For both Dyde and Harris, the fact that the scientifically naive comedian picked up on this sensation was very important.

"What Rick experienced is known as reorientation illusion," said Harris. "I found it very interesting that he experienced it because he had not been primed and was completely naive of the illusion. This is often experienced by astronauts in space and it can be dangerous because their perception of up and down is distorted. The illusion may cause them to turn right when they mean to turn left. The fact that Rick noted this was completely unexpected."

The work done by Harris, Dyde and their research team will be of use to astronauts when designing ways to make them feel more consistently oriented while in space. On Earth, the experiments performed by the York team will be useful for assessing sensory functioning in clinical patients who have damage to their vestibular systems.

For more information, visit the Centre for Vision Research Web site. A full story on the perception research undertaken by York researchers can be viewed in the Summer 2005 issue of YorkU Magazine.

By Jenny Pitt-Clark, YFile editor