Prepare for takeoff

Dowd, high above the earth. Photo by Justin Dowd.

Dowd, high above the earth. Photo by Justin Dowd.

A little over a year ago, Justin Dowd’s boss bought a pack of col­ored chalk to write the day’s spe­cials on the wall. Little did he know, that chalk would change Dowd’s life for­ever. The North­eastern under­grad­uate, then a third-​​year studying physics, told me he’d always had a pen­chant for doo­dling and a minor love affair with Einstein’s theory of rel­a­tivity. After get­ting cre­ative with the chalk menu and gaining some skills with the dusty medium, Dowd decided to make what he calls a “chalki­ma­tion” video explaining rel­a­tivity.

He spent two months holed up in his base­ment and at the end sub­mitted the final product to the Metro Newspaper’s Space Race. A few months later he was jug­gling phone calls from jour­nal­ists, astro­nauts, and elected offi­cials: a year ago today, Justin Dowd learned he’d be taking a trip to space, all thanks to the chalk drawings.

Since then, Dowd has been fairly busy. In addi­tion to con­tin­uing his studies in the physics depart­ment, he’s been hob­nob­bing at space par­ties in Man­hattan and taking trips to the Nether­lands to expe­ri­ence weight­less­ness and accel­er­a­tion forces that made him feel three times heavier than he is. He’s seen the world through the window of an F16 jet and he’s sat inside a space sim­u­lator the size of a house.

On the first day of his training, Dowd climbed into the sim­u­lator and watched the doors close around him. He was com­pletely enclosed, staring at a com­puter screen, as the instru­ment began to spin. But it didn’t feel like spin­ning, he said. Instead, since he had no ori­en­ta­tion other than the screen, which showed him bar­reling straight down a runway, it gave the illu­sion of accel­er­ating forward.

The accel­er­a­tion was incred­ible,” he said. “It was like get­ting vac­u­umed into the seat. You can lit­er­ally feel your skin get­ting pulled back and it was just a raw power like I’ve never felt before.”

And this was just the accel­er­a­tion period. At it’s fastest point, just before reen­tering the atmos­phere, the rocket will be trav­eling three times the speed of sound, he said. In order to slow down, it per­forms a 20 degree bank turn, yielding the most intense force of the trip at four to five times the force of gravity (4-​​5Gs). At just 3.5 Gs, the greatest force pos­sible in the sim­u­lator, Dowd’s blood rushed toward his feet and the trainers told him to tense his mus­cles to force the blood back into his head so he wouldn’t faint.

The next day, in the F16, Dowd expe­ri­enced 5Gs. And then he felt him­self go weight­less. With the jet pointing straight upward, the pilot pulled back on the stick so they began to fly in an upward arc. The jet, the pilot, and Dowd were floating in the air. “It’s true, gen­uine weight­less­ness,” he said. He told me it felt like being inside a warm pool with all of his mus­cles com­pletely relaxed and having no ori­en­ta­tion towards up or down, left or right.

The whole expe­ri­ence made Dowd want to take up flying. So now he’s not only a free­lance chalki­ma­tion artist, he’s also taking flight lessons. This year has com­pletely changed his per­spec­tive, he said, and per­haps also the tra­jec­tory of his own life. He’s con­sid­ering going into the pri­vate space industry when he graduates.

Dowd’s next training mis­sion will be in the fall when he’ll hop into a hol­lowed out pas­senger plane to do nose dives over the Gulf of Mexico. The plane will be falling, and so will everyone else in it, he said. They’ll do this forty times at 30 sec­onds each. “That’s gonna be twenty min­utes of weight­less­ness, total. Which is gonna be great.”

I think great is an under­state­ment. And all because of a pack of col­ored chalk.