PULLMAN, Wash.–Four Washington State University physics students returned last week from Houston, Texas, where they participated in a two-week NASA Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities program. The pilot program, which is headquartered at the Johnson Space Center and nearby Ellington Field, provided 24 teams of undergraduate students from institutions around the country the opportunity to conduct scientific experiments in near-zero-gravity conditions.
The students took their experiments aboard NASA’s modified Boeing 707, which is used to train astronauts in weightlessness and was used for filming scenes for the movie Apollo 13. The plane, nicknamed the “Vomit Comet,” creates short periods of near-zero gravity by repeatedly flying a parabolic flight pattern of rapid ascents and descents over the Gulf of Mexico. After using the first week to train and make final adjustment to their experiments, the students climbed on board for two hours of “science under adverse conditions.”
The WSU team, all junior physics majors, had designed an experiment to test two theories that have been advanced to explain sonoluminescence — a phenomena in which tiny bubbles of gas in a liquid emit bright sparks of light when subjected to intense high frequency sound waves. Jeremy Young and A.C. Binner collected data on the first flight day and Nate Hicks and Sue Richardson flew the second.
Flying just under the speed of sound, the plane performed 40 parabolic climbs and descents. Each parabola produced a 25 second period of simulated low gravity near the top of the each arc. The students performed as much science as they could in the series of near-zero gravity periods.
The plane, equipped with padded walls and ceiling and “subway” straps to hang on to, lived up to its nickname for every member of the WSU team. Hicks was the team “hero” because he was able to stick with the experiment through 38 parabolas before he gave in to nausea. “It was the transitions that made us sick,” said Richardson “All your guts fly up!” added Young. The team zipped their used air-sickness bags into their flightsuit pockets.
“It was amazing learning to do real science in adverse conditions. That alone was worth making the effort for the trip.” said Hicks. “Originally my goal was to do new science or I wouldn’t have applied for the trip. But afterwards, I realized the real lesson was how to carry out science in poor conditions. After the flight, I was really downcast because I thought our data was not good. So the high point for me was after we got home when Professor Marston said the data was as good as he expected it could be. It will require more analysis to see if it is valid.”
“Floating in space has been romanticized, and it lives up to the romantic image,” said Binner. “It’s so foreign to what we are used to. We take so much for granted. (In zero gravity) you can’t stop spinning, you lose your pencil or your water bottle floats off down the plane–shooting off little bubbles of water everywhere. It’s really a shock. All the things you never think about are all of a sudden difficult. You don’t have enough hands to hold everything down. If we go again, I’m sure there will be a lot more strings and Velcro.”
The first week, the team visited the NASA astronaut training center and received specialized training for their own flights. The decompression chamber, where they learned to recognize the symptoms of hypoxia (lack of oxygen to the brain), proved the nemesis of both Richardson and Young. Richardson passed out in the chamber. “She didn’t recognize the symptoms,” said Young. “I didn’t have the symptoms,” countered Richardson.
Most of the students recognized the symptoms, which include loss of color vision, tunnel vision, complete loss of vision, feeling tingly, dizzy or numb-witted and loss of motor function, in time to replace their oxygen masks before they lost consciousness. Young experienced extreme sinus pain as they returned to normal pressure.
Even before going aloft the team had difficulties to overcome. Their apparatus arrived two days late — its container was too large to fit through the door of the commuter airplane that flew them on the first leg of their journey from Spokane. Later the team had trouble with their specially prepared water. “It had too much gas in it,” said Richardson. “Our adviser, Dr. (Philip) Marston, Fed Ex-ed us a fresh supply. But somehow by the second day, it had become contaminated and we couldn’t get a stable bubble.”
For Young, the experience has opened new opportunities. For example, he said, “Dr. Marston has invited me to go up again with his research group to study the effects of gravity on the surface tension of water.” Marston also named him to a group of researchers who will be working on a Columbia Shuttle experiment at the NASA facility in Huntsville, Ala., this summer.
WSU faculty advisers for the group were physics professors Marston and Mark Kuzyk, who helped with logistics and fundraising, according to Richardson. In addition to motel and food expenses, cost to the students included rigorous class 3 Air Force physicals (flight physicals for pilots).
After the team recovers from two weeks of missed classes and final exams, they will construct a Web site, make presentations at local K-12 classes and write a journal article to complete their commitment to the program.