Alright. I did it! I solved a Rubik's cube in zero gravity! Well I did that back in April... but now I can talk about it! So here is the tell-all, behind-the-scenes to the flight and my emotions, honest-to-God blog post about that experience. And there is a LOT here... so it is going to be a long one! But it will be good, I promise!
Oh and now that the official video is out... go watch it here! I am so proud of it!
In The Beginning...
It all began in early March of 2020. That's right, just before the world shut down due to a global pandemic. The timing, man... That is part of why this process took over two years! I was sitting in an (interesting) Air BnB in northern Colorado with my good friend Dr. Yajaira Sierra-Sastre after a long week at the Next-Generation Suborbital Research Conference (NSRC). We were talking about dreams, including hers to work at NASA (which she now does!). We got on the topic of a Zero Gravity flight with an organization that focuses on research and I told Yajaira that I just couldn't afford it. She recommended reaching out to companies to sponsor me... and that is where the idea of Rubik's in Zero-G was born.
Two months later, I reached out to Rubik's through Instagram. That is right... I reached out to them. That means this was my idea and I am not a glorified spokesperson for the company. I have the original message to prove it! I was just extremely fortunate that the Rubik's team (Perry and Megan! Love you guys!) loved the idea and were very supportive of my ambitions to promote STEM in a fun way. I had originally asked for a small $1,000 to $1,500 sponsorship but Rubik's decided they wanted to be more in the loop and offered to pay for the whole thing as well as bring me on as an official Rubik's ambassador! What a deal!
Now it is important to note, that when this all started out, I wanted to do it as a science experiment. I did a whole bunch of research into Rubik's cubes and found most studies using them involved cognitive abilities and 3D spatial awareness, two things that get really wonky when in zero gravity. Perfect! I also discovered most research was conducted in children to see how Rubik's cubes helped develop problem-solving and pattern recognition long term.
Talking through some CFOP techniques.
Taking all this information, I set up my experiment. I was going to use the flight to take samples (around 7-10 each) of my cube solves in multiple scenarios: 1G on the ground, 1G on the plane, 0G, and 2G. I even was looking into hooking myself up to a brain scanner of some sort to see what activity I could narrow in on! Unfortunately, the original, science-based group had a few logistics issues and I ultimately decided to go with the company of Zero-G, meaning this scientific research got put on the back burner. But of course, I am still interested in doing this kind of research in the future!
At this time, I was still a cube enthusiast, not a true speed cuber. The first time I solved a cube at 12 years old when my 7th grade math teacher (who also gave me my first C in math!) offered to teach anyone to solve the Rubik's cube during our lunch period. A surprising number of kids actually attended and we all got faster and faster! I remember when I got my first cube, I was supposed to be getting ready for bed... oops. But I raced into my parents' room that night yelling and whooping to my mom that I solved it! I remember that SO vividly. I also remember immediately mixing it up so I could do it again. From there, it was just something I could do if someone had a Rubik's cube or if I was bored. My mom reminded me that I would have her mix up the cube on long car
rides and I would solve it and give it back to her to mix up again. I can't even imagine how many cubes she mixed up for me. That is a supportive mom right there!
But even still, in 2020 my record cube solve was 42 seconds. A LONG way off from the 20 seconds of zero gravity in a parabolic flight. I then took on the challenge of becoming a speed cuber. For two years I practiced almost daily to get my time down, talked to other speedcubers for tips, and learned a whole new method called CFOP. Note: if you are trying to become a speed cuber, definitely check out CFOP! I even tracked my progress for a few months in case you are nerdy like me and want to check out graphs. You can definitely see how there was a steep drop-off in time almost immediately after learning CFOP concepts, and then it was gradual step-by-step improvements for the remaining months to get it down to around 20 seconds.
A graph of my progress in Rubik's cube solves in 2020 when I first worked to become a speed cuber. I would solve a minimum of 10 times a day and analyze the data. Overall, spikes of slower times came up during stressful times in my life. You can also see the rapid progress and then the slow plateau to get sub-20 seconds regularly.
The Perfect Flight Date
Now as I mentioned, the idea originated in March of 2020, I did the actual flight on April 9, 2022, and the video release wasn't until August 18, 2022. The biggest thing I learned from this? Patience, perseverance, and trust. The universe threw a lot of curveballs my way during these two and a half years. From COVID to changing flight providers to multiple flight dates that got scrapped or canceled for many different reasons. I was on an emotional rollercoaster of "maybe this time! No not yet." I think this is why I didn't really get nervous until I was actually in L.A. putting on the flight suit the night before for the first interview. I almost didn't believe it was going to happen! But I really learned to not get in a tizzy when the universe flipped things around on me and to really trust the best outcome was on its way. And I was completely 100% right. I was supposed to be on the April 9th L.A. flight.
That flight was a Yuri's Night sponsored flight. The ticket price was all donated to Cosmic Odyssey Scholarship founded by my friend Niko Blanks. It is a nonprofit that sends pediatric cancer patients to Space Camp with their families and the heart-warming, tear-jerking stories and love and inspiration that comes out of this organization is simply unparalleled. I know now that the universe made me wait for my flight because it had to be this flight with a space cause behind it. This also meant so many of my space friends were on this flight (Mac, Amanda, Elaine, Andy, Tim to name a few) and by amazing cosmic coincidence, my mentor Dr. Sian Proctor was on this flight.
Before Sian became an astronaut with Inspiration4, she was going to be my videographer for the Zero-G flight. She told me "that way I have to be there and I will get to go on a Zero-G flight with you!" Now of course, that didn't go two ways when she went to space without me... I kid! But she was supposed to be with me on that Zero-G flight from the beginning. During the two years and multiple changes and her going to space and becoming a space icon, it didn't seem like that was going to happen. But then she was brought onto the Yuri's Night Zero-G flight as the astronaut the ticket buyers could float with! Which meant... she was on my flight! As my cheerleader, timekeeper, zero gravity mentor, and friend. The universe made that happen for me and I am so grateful!
Flight Day! Go for Launch!
April of 2022. It is getting REAL. I honestly wasn't very nervous until April 8th, the day before the flight. I think part of that was because of all the back and forth, I really felt like the rug was going to get pulled out from under me. But I had trust in the universe. Even though I was in a state of disbelief (or maybe denial - you tell me) I was still practicing hard. The month before the flight I made it my goal to solve the cube 1,000 times to prepare. That is an average of 33 solves per day! Which I easily met. With that, I can confidently say I solved at least 10,000 Rubik's cubes over the two years. It is probably closer to 15,000 to 20,000 if we actually did the numbers out. That is a LOT of Rubik's cubes!
I had originally asked Rubik's for 10 speed cubes and 2 foam cubes (to use as zero gravity indicators) and Rubik's, being the supportive team that they are, sent me 20 speed cubes and 30 foam cubes! I wasn't anticipating that when packing my suitcase! I was in Colorado the week before my flight to attend Space Symposium so I had to quickly find a duffle bag to bring 50 Rubik's cubes as my carry-on bag. Yeah... I got some weird looks from TSA. Also being so active the week before meant that I had lost my voice. Of course.
I didn't get nervous until I landed in L.A. and was getting ready for the first interview the night before. Then it all hit me. There was a real-life producer talking to me while a real-life makeup artist prepped me and a real-life cameraman was prepping the lighting. What world did I, a simple space girl, just step into? That night I had stress-dreams about the flight. The entire night I kept dreaming that I was trying to solve the cubes as fast as possible but the little single cubes kept popping off and floating away. When I woke up the next day, I knew my subconscious was telling me that I was nervous, even if I was trying to play it cool.
But as I said in the interview, if there is one thing I know about myself it is that I can turn "it" on before a mission. I actually talked about this in my blog post The Mindset of An Astronaut. I think this originated in my years of martial arts competitions and fighting but I know that is going to be hugely helpful when I become an astronaut. It also helps me be okay with feelings of anxiety because I trust myself to turn it on when I need to. So I actually let myself feel anxious, nervous, fear, whatever it is instead of trying to suppress it. And, just like I said in the video, I got my cool confidence and calm feeling while walking out to the plane.
And then we had take off.
And I have no idea what happened during that time. It was chaotic and my adrenaline was high and it was all a blur. I am actually so grateful for the video because it helped me remember moments and I got to see the joy on my face! I remember my emotions and feelings more than the specific moments of the flight, those are more flashes. Kind of like a dream!
Here are some moments I do remember. One, there were cubes floating EVERYWHERE. The good news is most of them were foam cubes. I brought my duffle bag with me and assured the Zero-G flight attendants that the foam cubes would come out but the hard cubes would stay in the bag. I would only take out the one I needed at the time. Well, here is the thing about zero gravity that I learned... everything floats. So while that was my intention that isn't what happened. By the fifth parabola, my cubes were everywhere (made for a fun pick-up at the end) and I felt so bad!
The good news is my fellow floaters all seemed to be having fun with them so I guess it worked out. Another specific memory I have is a FEET DOWN moment. The plane is doing parabolic arcs where on the upslope you have 2G and on the downslope you have 0G. That means we were constantly flipping between gravity forces that our bodies were not used to. The crew would shout "FEET DOWN" when we were coming out of zero gravity so we could prepare ourselves for the 2G impact. Well, one time I heard "feet down!" and I quickly found my way to the floor. Only to discover, I was actually on the ceiling! I was so turned around I couldn't tell which way was up! I quickly pushed off and made it to the floor with minimal 2G impacts, but it certainly was comedic!
And now for the most frequently asked question. Did you puke? Which I have to say is a completely valid question considering the plane is lovingly nicknamed the Vomit Comet. I did... not puke during my experience. Thank goodness! That would have made for interesting video content... I did take the motion sickness medicine beforehand. We also were given these cool little bracelets (which you can see in the video on my wrist if you look carefully) which sent electric shocks to help ground us and normalize our senses every so often. I am a very sense-based person so I think that really helped me. I did however get a little queasy near the end. I wouldn't say I was near puking but I did feel... funny.
That is the best way to describe it, just a little off. One reason why was because of the constant 2G to 0G to 2G to 0G. That kind of gravity whiplash is like nothing I had ever experienced before and I know my body was saying "what the heck is going on out there?" The other reason for this, which I found interesting, was the smell. As I mentioned, I am very sense-based and I have an excellent sense of smell. One of the other space friends on the flight, Richelle (who I love so much!) is an amazing space artist with a very creative eye. She had brought flowers onto the flight to get some inspiration and great pictures. But unfortunately for me, with my senses in a complete tizzy, the normally lovely fragrance of flowers through off my system completely. Wouldn't change a second of it though and those flowers made for some GREAT inspiration, but I am so glad I have that feedback for myself and awareness of my senses!
Like I said, what I do remember is the feelings and the emotions I had. SO many emotions! When actually solving the cube, I truly wasn't sure if I could do it. I had done a few practice solves and I
was taking 30 to 40 seconds. It was horrible. It was like all my training went out the window! Then when it came time to do it for real, everything snapped on and I got my 19-second solve the very first time! I was so relieved and so grateful for my practice of thousands of cubes and my ability to focus in. I do remember zero gravity feeling so... free. I keep saying I want to live in zero gravity and that is the truth. I want to bottle up that feeling! It was like an out-of-body experience while also feeling the most in touch with myself that I ever have.
Life After ZeroG
Life since the flight has been pretty wild. Obviously, I couldn't talk about the flight until the big release on August 18th, specifically chosen because that is Never Give Up Day! I was really proud to be a face for such an important message of perseverance. Waiting to show the pictures and videos and talk about it freely online was really hard. I just wanted to scream it from the rooftops! For a few months, it didn't even feel like it really happened sometimes just because I couldn't express myself and my experiences like I wanted to. But then... the big video release came. And my life has been a rollercoaster ever since. I have had tons of live TV news interviews that I had to get media training for. I learned so much about presences and all the interworkings of that side of the entertainment and news industry. I have been getting up between 3:00 to 4:30 am to get ready for East coast morning interviews, doing three or four interviews a day, then skipping off to my normal job as an engineer as if nothing happened. I always get nervous I am being to rambly or not saying enough or I am interrupting or my hair is messed up... so many little things that I normally don't have to think of! But it has been so much fun and so rewarding to see how many people are inspired by these stories. Some are inspired to pick up a Rubik's cube and figure it out! Some are inspired to keep pursuing STEM or space. All are seeing that this stuff should be fun. This is exactly what I wanted STEM Outreach to look like!
Social media has been difficult as well. For the two years leading up to the flight, I tried to be the "influencer" type. I did Rubik's give aways and recorded STEM Sundays and did unboxings and tons of reels and TikToks. I learned that stuff is really not me. I might do it sometimes but if I do it as much as influencers are "supposed to" I just feel... inauthentic. It isn't me! SInce the release, I have been mostly talking about Rubik's cubes for two weeks. It feels a little weird but I am also just posting about what is big in my life right now and sharing bits and pieces of my experience when I have time. I am truly just sharing my accomplishments and allowing myself to take up space on a project that I am proud of finally (after two and a half years) to share with the world. I still have those little voices in the back of my head like "what if I am posting too much about myself?" and "what are other space influencers thinking about this? Do I seem lame? Or fake?" and "am I even doing this right??" But I am learning those are just fleeting thoughts that society has trained me to think. I can quiet those voices and truly just post about what I am excited to share, with no expectations and no judgments on myself.
To the Stars!
So thank you to those who have been part of this journey, whether you were part of the creation or you joined in after the video. I truly appreciate your support in helping me stop to say "this was a pretty cool dream that I made a reality." The other thing I wanted to say is that I truly never meant for all this to happen. I am just a girl who wanted to go experience a ZeroG flight and stopped at nothing short of moving mountains to get there. This means anything you have your sites set on can also turn into a reality outside of your wildest expectations. You don't know what the universe has in store for you!
I did a lot of media prep for all these interviews but one question I did not prepare an answer for is the one I seem to get asked the most by newscasters, of course. What is next? And honestly, I don't know. I don't know what my next major project is and I don't know what the universe has in store for me. But as I said in the video, I do know it is going to end in space. That is the goal and I am going to keep my eye on the prize. And while I wait, I am going to keep having cool experiences on Earth that will prepare me for when I eventually get up there. After all, the adventure doesn't start in space. It starts down here, on Earth, right now. And I am not going to waste a second of it.