A GLXP Adventure in Microgravity

On an ordinary work day last December, my email client chimes and a message appears with an intriguing subject line: “Zero G”. I blink as I read the note -- are my eyes deceiving me? In front of me is a request to fly as a journalist for a NASA microgravity student team. With fingers typing at speeds that likely almost break the sound barrier, I reply, “Of course!” And so the fortuitous story begins of how I recently got to fly on the Zero G aircraft with NASA's Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program (RGEFP) and a group of students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. To start, here's a quick teaser video that I created of our adventure:

I have to acknowledge that I'm very fortunate to work for an organization that supports such opportunities (and STEM education!): the X PRIZE Foundation graciously allowed me to abandon my desk for a week and work remotely in Houston, TX as I shadowed the University of Wisconsin-Madison microgravity team in April. Our base camp for the week was NASA's Hangar 990 at Ellington Field, where the UW team worked on final preparations of their NASA experiment -- a device designed to make very accurate measurements of propellant levels in space. 

Hangar 990 with the Super Guppy parked outside

On Day 1 of the "flight week" (as it's referred to), the UW team discovers that the shipping service did not handle their experiment with care and that it requires some fixing prior to flight. Fortunately, simplicity of the design and great teamwork results in a quick formulation of a solution to the problem -- the team creates plans for repairs and springs into action. Some of the team disassembles the experiment and others are sent to the hardware store for parts (like all good engineers, they have duct tape on their list). The ability of the UW students to calmly evaluate the problem, work together to find the best solution, and then delegate tasks to fix their experiment -- all within an afternoon -- is nothing short of impressive.

That pretty well sums it up.
Drawing up solutions
Dividing up work
Outside of working on the experiment, the team also participates in a few "briefings" (side note: there is nothing brief about NASA briefings) which cover a range of topics; for example, what happens to your sense of direction if you are quickly spun around in a chair with your eyes closed. This is one example in a flight physiology briefing about motion sickness -- where we also received warnings about eating Taco Bell right before the Zero G flight. Talk of getting sick amongst the students is fairly light-hearted; relatively few actually get motion sickness on the flights (the briefings and optional pre-flight meds help a lot with this). A NASA flight surgeon informs us about the "ScopeDex" anti-motion sickness medicine that we can take prior to our flight, adding that "30 parabolas might do somethin' to ya." While I usually have a stomach of steel on boats, rollercoasters, and the Tea Cup ride at Disneyland, I decide that I'm not going to leave this one to chance, and sign up to take the medicine along with the rest of the UW flight crew.

Hanging with the cool UW kids at the briefings

Spinning in the name of science
In the downtime, I talk to the students about their project and the flight. The University of Wisconsin-Madison applies to the NASA Reduced Gravity Program every year and traditionally has at least one team project accepted. This ongoing microgravity program means that they have a large team of engineering students that work on the projects each year -- the new students work as ground crew, and returning students are considered for the flight crew. The team that I'll be flying with are microgravity veterans: Paul Pezzi and Nathan Wong, both seniors in engineering, along with Dr. Manohar Despande, the team's NASA mentor.

The entire UW-Madison crew

Flight Day
The experiment is loaded on the aircraft and fully secured for microgravity. Our flight crew reports to Ellington Field at 8am in our NASA-issued flight suits, and we're ready to roll.  Nathan is even sporting his Buzz Aldrin "Rocket Hero" Nike shoes. "They're only for microgravity," he explains. 

Our flight team takes our anti-motion sickness meds and sit down for the pre-flight briefing. We'll be flying a series of 30 parabolas, alternating between 2G (trough of the parabola) and 0G (peak of the parabola). The microgravity (0G) periods will last about 20-25 seconds -- in total, we'll get about 8 minutes in microgravity. We'll even get one Mars gravity parabola (~1/3 G) and one lunar parabola (~1/6 G). At this point, saying that we are excited about flying in 0G is like saying that the Saturn V was a decent-sized rocket (understatement!). Between our excitement and the meds, which make you feel a bit squirrely, we can hardly contain ourselves.

NASA's watching, be cool! Our flight crew (from L to R): Amanda, Nathan, Paul, and Dr. Despande

At long last, we are cruising high above the Gulf of Mexico and getting ready for the first 0G parabola. The students are busy setting up their experiments -- the UW team immediately fires up their computer and is ready to take data. There won't be any moving parts visible on their experiment in microgravity, so the computer will be vital for monitoring whether their experiment is functioning and data is being properly collected. 

Paul sets up the UW experiment
Soon we feel the 1.8G pull, which means the start of the parabola series. Microgravity, here we come! I search for the nearest handhold so that I won't feel completely out of control, at least until I get used to the feeling of weightlessness. As the plane noses over at the top, the Gs drop off very quickly and in a matter of a second or two, everyone is floating around the cabin. Smiles and laughter and cheering erupt, and all I can think is, "Wahoo!" We giddily float in this new environment for about 20 seconds, then the flight crew yells, "FEET DOWN!" We drop out of microgravity just as quickly as we initially floated into it, and then it's back to 1.8Gs to repeat the process. 

All smiles.
A couple of parabolas allow us to get oriented, then it's time to start research. Nathan and Paul hunker down and start the computer program that collects data coming from a special sensor mounted on their experiment. Within the experiment rig is a simulated propellant tank that contains small polypropylene balls, which float freely during 0G. These represent globules of propellant that form in space, and the sensor is measuring their mass. Data flows in, and everything appears to be running smoothly. 

30 parabolas passed by in the blink of an eye. As you can tell from the video at the beginning of this post, there was a little time to do "secondary research" (aka, time to play) -- Nathan and Paul brought a small basketball in honor of the NCAA basketball tournament happening in Houston at the time, and I brought a Google Lunar X PRIZE sticker. I really can't wait until 0G sports become a reality -- it is going to be be tons of fun to watch (and hopefully participate?). Oh, and my 20 second preview of lunar gravity? Amazing. I can see why Apollo astronaut Pete Conrad exclaimed, "Whoopee!" when he bounced onto the lunar surface. 

When we finally returned to solid ground, every student aboard the Zero G aircraft was feeling a bit more inspired about science, research, and (of course!) space. The NASA RGEFP is an incredible opportunity for students, allowing them to conduct research in a real-world manner, but coupling it with an out-of-this-world experience. In addition, many students made valuable contacts at NASA and learned about internship/career opportunities during the flight week.  These bright, motivated, and inspired students are essentially the perfect recruits for NASA

 I'd like to thank the University of Wisconsin-Madison team for inviting me to fly as their journalist (especially Nathan and Paul). Also big thanks to X PRIZE for being flexible, and of course to NASA for the incredible opportunity. It was definitely the experience of a lifetime -- I can only hope that there will be a chance to do it again someday!

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