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It appears that, stuck with the “vomit comet” airplane that they no longer had much use for, NASA managers tried to justify its existence and budget by assigning it tasks for which it and its crew were not designed or trained to do.
The unorthodox use of the C-9 aircraft was driven, according to the complaints, by a desire at the high levels of the agency to prove the Vomit Comet was of practical use. Apparently, it didn’t work—the C-9 aircraft program was defunded and shut down in 2014.
Since 1959, NASA has used a variety of aircraft to simulate the weightlessness of space in order to train astronauts and perform basic experiments in zero gravity. From 2005 to 2014, the C-9, built in 1970, became one of NASA’s primary Vomet Comets. According to documents uncovered by Motherboard using the Freedom of Information Act (embedded at the bottom of this article) show that the Vomit Comet was used on at least two occasions for purposes other than simulating space flight, while still labeling the missions “crew training.” In 2013, the agency officially looked into having the plane reclassified to run these types of missions.
In one of these cases, the plane was flown to Greenland without the proper equipment or training for the crew, and experienced what was described by crew as “a near fatal crash.” It didn’t crash, but the crew apparently feared for their lives.
The program was shut down in 2014 with the operations handed over to private companies. Now if NASA needs to train astronauts, they simply hire these companies, which make the bulk of their money flying private missions, something NASA wasn’t allowed to do.