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Physics & Astronomy

Taking Flight

Carthage students flip, float and spin in zero g

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As a veteran employee at Six Flags Great America, Danielle Weiland has been on every roller coaster in the Gurnee, Ill., amusement park. But not even four years of ups and downs could have prepared her for Wednesday’s flight on NASA’s zero- gravity plane.

“The experience of the flight was better than all of the roller coasters combined,” said Danielle, a Carthage sophomore from Kenosha. “I hope to do it again next year, and I’m going to brag to all of my coaster friends that this is the best coaster ever.”

G-Force One, aka the “Weightless Wonder,” is used by NASA to train astronauts, conduct research and test equipment before sending into space. It creates periods of weightlessness for its passengers by repeatedly climbing and falling as it flies. The plane soars to about 34,000 feet, then free-falls about 10,000 feet before climbing again. With every pull-up, passengers experience 1.7g to 2g. With every fall, passengers float in zero gravity for 20 to 25 seconds at a time.

The Carthage students were selected to conduct research on the Weightless Wonder through NASA’s Systems Engineering Educational Discovery program, which pairs college teams with NASA engineers to design and test experiments essential to NASA goals. The Carthage students used groundbreaking fuel gauge technology to measure propellant volume in zero-g.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to participate in such a flight, said Veronica Seyl, acting manager for NASA’s Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program. In a briefing before Wednesday’s flights, Seyl urged all students to make the most of the experience.

“When you are on board and doing your research, take time to look around you, and sear that moment into your brain,” she said. “There are no do-overs — and you’re going to want them, I guarantee it. So take time to take it all in and just feel the sensation of floating, because it’s something you can’t do on Earth.”

“Who turned off the gravity?”

Describing the experience of zero gravity proves difficult for flyers. “There really isn’t a way to describe it,” said Carthage junior Steven Mathe of Wauconda, Ill. “It’s something you just have to experience. I’ve seen videos, I’ve seen pictures, but they just don’t compare. There were times in zero g when I could have sworn I was upside down when I wasn’t. It was incredible.”

“It was absolutely amazing,” said Carthage junior John Robinson, of Kenosha. “The whole time I was floating around, I was just thinking ‘This is so incredibly awesome.’”

A longtime gymnast, Robinson took the opportunity to flip and spin in zero-g, and also attempted a 2g push-up. “If I owned an airplane like that, I wouldn’t do anything else. I would just have a pilot and padded walls and a padded ceiling and a padded floor, and I would just float for hours on end.”

For KelliAnn Anderson, a sophomore from Cumberland, the ride exceeded every expectation.

“When I was trying to imagine beforehand what zero gravity would feel like, I imagined it would be like you’re in a car going over a hill. You’d get that lift off your seat and that tingly feeling, and you’d feel like you’re falling,” she said. “But on the plane, you don’t feel like you’re falling at all. One second you’re just sitting there, and the next second, you feel your hands start to float up, and then your butt starts to float up, and then you pick your feet off the ground and you expect them to fall back down, but they don’t. So you just kind of hang there.

“It’s just like someone turned the gravity off.”

‘A transformative experience’

The students weren’t on the Weightless Wonder to just float and spin. They were there to run the experiment that they’ve been working on since October. Team leader Amber Bakkum, a Carthage senior from Winthrop Harbor, Ill., has been to NASA’s Johnson Space Center three times, and has flown twice.

“This program gives students a sense of what scientists do, in a really fun, one-of-a- kind way,” Bakkum said. “Instead of doing a lab in a controlled classroom, you get to go out in the field on this airplane and do research that actual NASA researchers do. We were given a big idea, and we had to come up with some way to test it, and that’s what science is about. … I really like that aspect of curiosity and discovery, and it helped me realize that I want to do research in the future.”

That’s the whole point, said team advisor Kevin Crosby, a physics professor at Carthage. “For me, it’s not the experience of zero-g as much as it is the experience of the doing of science and engineering in a way that matters to people. They’re working on projects that may see the light of day in commercial industries or the space program, and they can take pride in having participated in high-level research at such an early stage in their careers.

“The flight itself is the reward for six months of intensive work,” Crosby said. “For several of the alumni of this program, the flight was a transformative experience. It helped these students commit to a career in science. They’ve gone on to become space scientists in their own right.”

Experiment was a success

Ground crew member Kevin Lubick, a Carthage junior from DeForest, was proud of his team’s dedication to the experiment, and while it will take months to analyze the data, early results show the experiment was successful.

“I was incredibly nervous throughout the flights because it was my software running the show,” said Lubick, a computer science major and the team’s software engineer. “When I saw Steve’s grin and thumbs-up when he got of the plane, I knew it had gone well.

“We all understood the fact that we were in charge of this project,” Lubick continued. “This wasn’t our mentor’s project, or our school’s project, or our PI’s project. This was our project that we had put so much time, effort, money, lost sleep and caffeine into. I think it’s important that students become so dedicated to a project. We learn to find something that’s important in life, and hit it with everything we’ve got.”

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    • For a full decade, NASA has selected Carthage students to conduct research aboard its zero-gravity aircraft. Lately, the stakes have risen. A team of underclassmen is grinding to prepare a tiny but powerful Earth-imaging satellite for launch to the International Space Station. Learn more about the space sciences at Carthage

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