St. Louis - April 25, 2001
America's future scientists recently competed for a coveted prize in a NASA-sponsored contest.
Vying not for fame or fortune, these bright students hoped for a trip aboard NASA's KC-135A, otherwise known as the Vomit Comet.
The Vomit Comet is a NASA aircraft that climbs nearly six miles above Earth's surface and then points its nose downward and freefalls towards the Gulf of Mexico.
The result is over twenty seconds of weightlessness on each descent.
About thirty of these parabolic arcs are completed on each flight, giving the crew a total of fifteen minutes of zero-gravity.
This aircraft has been used for years to train astronauts for weightlessness.
In March, adept college students followed in their shoes while testing zero-g experiments they had designed to improve space flight.
I recently accompanied two of the winning teams from this year's Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program to Houston, Texas, for an unforgettable trip on this infamous aircraft.
The University of Tennessee-Knoxville team, led by engineering undergraduates Nathan Fowler and Randy Warren, devised an elaborate apparatus to test two-phase heat transfer devices in zero-gravity.
They painstakingly designed, built, and tested every component of their experiment over the past half a year.
"It's great to be here, this is the culmination of a lot of work," said Warren.
The Wesleyan University team, who also designed an experiment and raised the funds to come to Texas for this opportunity, echoed these thoughts.
Their experiment dealt with testing a mock-up of the portable fire extinguishers currently on board the International Space Station.
The group of ambitious undergrads was making the first zero-g tests of the fire extinguisher.
"They have done lots of tests on Earth, but the extinguishers aboard ISS have never been tried in zero-gravity," team leader Ian Garrick-Bethell noted.
Our week began with flight orientation and rigorous classroom training.
We learned about the physiological effects of weightlessness and how our bodies would react to the rollercoaster flight path of the KC-135A (some would react better than others we were told).
Our next hurdle was successful completion of "chamber training".
The chamber is a cozy room, reminiscent of a small submarine.
Once sealed inside, NASA officials began pumping out air so we could see how our bodies respond to lack of oxygen.
Conditions were created to simulate a loss of cabin pressure at 25,000' elevation.
We quickly learned that the time of functioning consciousness at this altitude is no more than a couple of minutes.
Different team members had varying responses to the hypoxic environment - everything from dizziness to uncontrollable laughter.
We were now properly trained and possessed the skills necessary for a ride aboard the Vomit Comet.
On the morning of our flight, as the sun rose through the haze over the airfield, the ground crew was busy making final preparations on the aircraft.
Meanwhile, the scientists sat in the hangar and received flight suits and a final briefing from the flight director.
Everyone was feeling a little nervous, wondering if the plane would live up to its name.
Jeff Berko of Wesleyan University captured the moment when he stated, "It's like we are about to take the final exam on a rollercoaster."
Once cleared for take-off, nervousness metamorphosed to excitement.
As soon as the plane was off the ground the students were at their experiments making final preparations and running through checklists.
After twenty minutes of flying we were safely over the Gulf of Mexico and ready to experience our first parabola.
As the plane rapidly climbed upward at a 45° angle, a force of twice Earth's normal gravity held us to the floor like a giant magnet.
In a short time the plane began to level out and point its nose towards the sea, six miles below.
The force of two-g quickly became zero-g and all of a sudden, weightlessness.
"Awesome!" exclaimed Nathan Fowler.
We were now free to move about the cabin in a most unusual way - floating above it.
Up and down lost their meaning as we somersaulted through the fuselage.
Too quickly came the call, "feet down, coming out", signaling the end of freefall and weightlessness.
As we fell to the floor, the force of two-g's once again overcame us as the plane climbed upward for the next parabola.
All in all, we experienced weightlessness thirty times, which was more than enough for some passengers to retrieve the motion sickness bags we were issued at the onset of the flight.
Touching down at Ellington Airfield in Houston marked an end to our once-in-a-lifetime experience.
When asked if he would do it again Fowler responded, "Sure, when can we go?" Warren added, "Now I know why astronauts don't quit their jobs." Preliminary results indicate that both teams' experiments were successful, marking a pleasant end to an unforgettable week.
Reduced Gravity Student Flight 2001 Zero G Photos
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Tito To Take Space Taxi To ISS
Moscow - April 24, 2001
A US businessman who has paid to be the first space tourist, Dennis Tito, will make his controversial flight to the International Space Station even in the absence of US approval, the Russian Space Agency said Monday.
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