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ECS students experience the ride of a lifetime in NASA program
ECS students experience the ride of a lifetime in NASA programSeptember 24, 2001Jonathan Hayjhay@syr.edu
While some students might have spent the last days of their summer vacation on a ride at a state fair or theme park, a team of five students from the L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science (ECS) went on an adventure that no roller coaster in the country could match.
The students spent 10 days in Houston as part of NASA’s Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program (RGSFOP) at the Johnson Space Center. While in Houston, four of the team members got a chance to fly in the KC-135, a microgravity jet nicknamed the “Weightless Wonder” which flies in a parabolic flight path, creating 20 seconds of weightlessness on each dive.
“The plane pitches and you go to two G’s heading up, and then it comes over the top and starts down,” says Reid Thomas, a senior in aerospace engineering and one of the team members. “As soon as it begins heading down, you come up off the floor immediately. The first time it happens you’re really thinking ‘Holy Cow!'”
The team was one of 29 chosen to take part in the flight opportunities program out of a pool of applicants from colleges and universities throughout the country who submitted proposals for microgravity experiments. SU’s experiment was to analyze the microstructure of the metal gallium when it is solidified in a microgravity environment. During the zero-gravity parts of the flight, the SU students cooled liquefied metal to see if the lack of gravity changed gallium’s microstructural properties. The students now plan to examine the metal samples under an electron microscope at SU and report their findings to NASA.
In addition to Thomas, members of the SU team were Alexis Larson, a junior in aerospace engineering; Matt McCarthy, a senior in aerospace engineering; Pepe Palafox; a senior in mechanical engineering and Felipe Sediles, a senior in aerospace engineering.
Before taking the flight, the team went through eight days of preparation that included physiological training, lectures, seminars and a test to make sure their experiment was ready and safe to fly. The physiological training included a trip to an altitude chamber, where for five minutes each participant was asked to breathe the amount of oxygen that would be available in a 25,000-feet-high environment while working on a written test containing simple math problems and puzzles. The oxygen deprivation caused some interesting reactions from the team.
“My whole body tingled and Alexis (Larson) just burst into laughter,” says Sediles, the team leader who spent time earlier in the summer as an intern at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. “People from NASA were asking us questions that I thought I was answering right away, but when we watched the video afterward, you could see that there was a long pause between the question and answer.”
Palafox says time seemed to stand still in the chamber. “It seemed like we were only in there for a minute, but it was actually five. I guess it was almost like I was in a trance because I wasn’t responding to their questions.”
Before the team was given the go-ahead to load the plane with their equipment and fly, it had to pass the Test Readiness Review (TRR). During the TRR, an eight-person NASA committee of flight and safety personnel received a summary of the team’s experiment and, through team questioning, determined whether the experiment was safe to fly on the KC-135. Sediles says Team 0ranGe passed the TRR due in large part to the input provided by NASA flight engineers before-hand and the preparation by the team in anticipation of all hazardous scenarios.
Team 0ranGe joined four other schools on their flights Aug. 30-31. Two fliers are allowed from each to team to fly on each assigned flight day. McCarthy and Thomas flew on Aug. 30, while Larson and Sediles flew on Aug. 31. Each flight was scheduled to complete 32 parabolas, and out of those 32, each SU team needed to perform the experiment 14 times. The experiment succeeded in producing 10 out of 28 gallium samples solidified in the microgravity environment.
“The first time we went weightless, I got so disoriented. The plane is completely covered with white padding, so it is hard to tell which side of the plane is the floor,” Larson says. “They tell you not to look out of the few windows they have because you may get motion sickness. The first few parabolas we used for adjustment to the new environment. The floating lasts for about 20 seconds, then the flight directors shout through the cabin ‘feet down’ so that when gravity comes back you’re sure to land on your feet in a safe place.”
On the parabolas that the students didn’t have to conduct an experiment, they were allowed to enjoy the weightless environment any way they wanted. The students were spun in circles by NASA crew members on the flight and also got the chance to simulate what it would be like walking on the moon.
For Sediles, who would one day like to work for NASA as an astronaut, the experience in Houston was phenomenal.
“It was a great experience and I can’t thank the people at ECS enough for making this a reality,” he says. “We got a chance to meet astronauts, tour the Johnson Space Center, do the flight and conduct our experiment. It was an amazing opportunity that we all appreciate.”