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This flight would be unlike any other they'd ever taken, and the passengers were nervous. They didn't have to contend with long lines, luggage, or bad airport food, but they did have to remember to keep track of their feet when they began floating in the air.
University seniors Eric Euteneuer, Cecilia Ortiz-Duenas, Travis Schauer, and Christopher Teeuwen were about to board the Boeing KC-135a, NASA's reduced-gravity training aircraft. The plane flies a roller-coaster path consisting of 40 parabolic arcs. At the top of each curve, passengers float weightlessly for 25 seconds and then endure two minutes of double gravity before the plane dives and climbs again. These twists and turns have been known to induce nausea in the most experienced sailor, earning the plane its nickname—"vomit comet."
Their flight ticket was a research proposal they'd submitted to NASA's Reduced-Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program. In this nationwide competition, college undergraduates vie for a chance to conduct self-designed in-flight experiments aboard the KC-135a. NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston and the Texas Space Grant Consortium launched the program in 1995 as an undergraduate research opportunity for Texas college students.
In 1997 the program expanded to include students from across the country; this year the program involved 96 teams from 47 institutions in 30 states. The program is modeled after NASA's Reduced-Gravity Program, which has trained astronauts in similar flights since 1959.
The University students began their adventure one day during their junior year when Professor William Garrard, chair of the aerospace engineering and mechanics department, visited their fluid dynamics class. He tendered an offer the four aerospace engineering majors couldn't resist: Come up with a zero-gravity experiment, submit the proposal to NASA, and perhaps win the ride of a lifetime.
"Everybody wanted to be in the program," recalls Ortiz-Duenas. "The entire class went up to Professor Garrard after class to see if they could sign up."
Eventually the field of candidates narrowed, and Teeuwen, Schauer, Euteneuer, and Ortiz-Duenas began working on their proposal with aerospace engineering professor Ellen Longmire in spring 1999.
The team decided to conduct two fluid dynamics experiments that would examine how basic fluid properties react in space. Teeuwen says the team wanted its experiments to be more than just abstract exercises.
"In longer space flights there is a lot of fuel mixing, waste processing, and recycling. They need to know how fluids will react in these circumstances," he says. "As it stands now, there's not a lot [that's] understood about how fluids react in space."
In December 1999 the team sent a formal proposal to NASA. The wait for a response seemed endless.
"We were supposed to hear from NASA in March," says Schauer. "But on the day we were supposed to find out, we got an email telling us we wouldn't hear anything until May. When May finally arrived, NASA told us we wouldn't hear anything until June. At that point, we were all on pins and needles."
In June 2000, just before summer break, the students finally learned that NASA had approved their proposal. A five-member team led by Garrard and Associate Professor Thomas Shield also submitted a winning proposal. Both teams were scheduled to fly the "vomit comet" in February 2001.
"That was a very happy day for me," says Euteneuer. "I just couldn't believe I was getting the chance to go to NASA and fly on the same plane they use to train the astronauts. It was a dream come true."
However, they still had plenty of hard work to do. With the flight date looming, the students had to construct their experiment while contending with exams and class work.
"It was a bit of a juggling act and a challenge to study," says Teeuwen, "but we were all committed to the project one hundred percent."
Fortunately for the team, NASA covered the flight costs, and the University provided all other equipment and paid the team's travel expenses. Ortiz-Duenas says the team couldn't have done it without the University's help.
"Some of the other student teams had to raise all the money themselves," she says. "Between our class work and exams, I don't think we would have had the time to raise money, too. I'm glad we didn't have that distraction."
After designing the experiment, the team had to find a freight company willing to ship the 50 gallons of oil it needed for the experiments.
"That took a bit of work," says Schauer. "Most freight companies have restrictions against transporting such material."
All problems were quickly forgotten when the students arrived at Ellington Field, north of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, to join other teams in the NASA hanger. Teeuwen remembers being fascinated by the sophisticated NASA equipment.
"Everywhere you looked there was an awesome piece of equipment," he recalls. "After reading about all this stuff, it was just amazing to see it up close."
After a quick debriefing and facilities tour, the students underwent mandatory preflight health and safety training. They soon learned that NASA's instructions are a lot more complicated than the rote demonstrations presented on commercial flights.
The training began with a day of lectures on the dangers of sudden decompression and ended in the high-altitude chamber, where students had a brush with oxygen deprivation.
Used to train astronauts, the high-altitude chamber simulates oxygen levels at 24,000 feet and higher. At those altitudes, hypoxia—oxygen deprivation—can affect even the most experienced mountaineer. Hypoxia impairs thinking, memory, and judgment even before its most serious physiological effects take hold, making it unlikely that victims can comprehend their disability in time to prevent serious illness or even death. The instructor cautioned the students to put on their oxygen masks right away if they experienced symptoms of hypoxia during the session.
Inside the chamber, the students sat on benches and inhaled pure oxygen for 15 minutes to rid their bodies of nitrogen and prevent "the bends" during decompression. Then the hatch was locked, and the "ascent" began.
At 25,000 feet they were told to remove their oxygen masks and complete a series of simple exercises. Teeuwen recalls that when he first took off his mask he felt perfectly fine.
"My breathing was normal," he says. "I wasn't gasping or anything, but when I tried to do the simple exercises they gave us, I knew I was in trouble."
Most students couldn't complete a basic connect-the-dot exercise. Ortiz-Duenas couldn't remember how to add simple numbers. "I couldn't figure out what two plus two equaled," she says. "It completely baffled me for a minute."
Soon all the oxygen masks were back in use. Thirty minutes in the high-altitude chamber had convinced them that their flight was not without risk.
On the morning of the flight, everyone was excited, nervous, and a little bit scared.
The takeoff was a little eery, says Euteneuer. Strapped into his seat in the windowless compartment, he couldn't tell when the aircraft left the ground. Once it was airborne, the students took their positions next to their workstations. Then the climb began.
Instructors had warned them that most people get sick during the double-gravity flight segments. The intensity of the g-forces surprised Ortiz-Duenas.
"It was like someone had put a cement block on my entire body," she says. "You can't move at all—like your arms and legs are pinned to the ground."
But suddenly the pressure lifted, and the students slowly drifted up from the floor. Teeuwen hollered. Ortiz-Duenas whooped. Euteneuer and Schauer laughed uncontrollably.
They all agree that the sensation of weightlessness defies description, although Teeuwen says it resembles swimming—in a very weird environment.
"When you're swimming, you have to push against the water to move, and friction causes your body to stop," he says. "In weightlessness, nothing can slow you down or stop you except a wall or another person."
After a few parabolas—and a few barf bags for Schauer and Euteneuer—the team turned its attention to the experiments. Euteneuer says the high-altitude oxygen levels made the act of flipping a switch a daunting task.
"I had to really concentrate to flip that switch," he says. "It took all of my mental focus to complete that one little task."
After two hours and 32 parobolas, the flight ended, and the team was back on the ground. Although they experienced less than 15 minutes of weightlessness, Ortiz-Duenas says it's an experience she'll never forget. All the team members will be attending graduate school at the University and hope to become astronauts one day.
"We all hope and dream of the day we can train for missions on the shuttle or even a flight to Mars," she says, "but even if none of us ever returns to NASA, we'll carry the friendship, the memories, and the stories forever."