Six years ago NASA designed the Reduced Gravity Student Flight Program to get more students interested in science and technology. Teams selected to participate have the opportunity to travel to Houston, Texas for a week and a half and conduct their experiments in a weightless environment on the KC-135.
The KC-135 is a specially modified four-engine turbo jet that was originally designed in the 1960’s for the military so that they could refuel planes in mid-air. It is now used for research purposes at NASA. The KC-135 has also been termed, “The Weightless Wonder” or, as it is better known, “The Vomit Comet”. The affectionate name stems from the fact that many people tend to get sick after experiencing a zero-gravity environment.
The RGSFP flies the majority of the teams in March and April. There are also two summer sessions in July. Students interested in the program have to submit a proposal by October 20 detailing their experiment and how it works. NASA engineers and scientists review the proposals and if a university has been selected to participate, they are notified by email around Christmas.
NASA hopes to expand the number of universities interested in the program in the coming years. University Affairs Officer and Co-Director of the Reduced Gravity Student Flight Program, Donn Sickorez says “One way to think of this is, it’s a flying science fair where teams propose experiments and our NASA reviewers look at them to see they are good science, not groundbreaking, but good science and if they are, we invite them to fly here.”
Students send their experiment in pieces to Ellington Air Force Base in Houston, where they will put the experiment together and get ready for TRR, the Test Readiness Review. TRR allows students to give an overview of the experiment they will be flying on the KC-135 and tell a team of safety inspectors what the role of each student will be and how the experiment will be conducted. If inspectors feel the experiment still isn’t ready to take aboard the KC-135, they do have the right to pull the experiment from being conducted. At the end of the inspection, the team will be given a “GO” or “NO-GO” to fly their experiments the following day.
For the KC-135 to experience altered gravity states it must go through a series of parabolic maneuvers. Starting at an elevation 24,000 feet the plane ascends upward at 45-degree angle reaches its peak at about 32,000 feet and descends back down at a 45-degree angle. Student’s experience zero gravity as the plane starts to descend downward. Zero gravity typically lasts anywhere from 15-30 seconds each time. During each mission the KC-135 performs 40 parabolic maneuvers. Missions last about two hours, giving students adequate time to conduct experiments.
Students usually get the results they need from their experiment after 30 parabolic maneuvers, so the last 10 are used for fun. Students bring footballs or small toys and throw them back and forth. Back flips are another common amusement. “It was the coolest thing I’ve ever done, ever felt. I’m ready to do again” said senior Joseph Oxendine from UNC-Pembroke after exiting the KC-135 last April.
Once the experience with NASA’s Reduced Gravity Student Flight Program is over, students go home to work on a final report that must be submitted to NASA. Participants are asked to include an analysis of how well the experiment worked, the results found and a summary of outreach activities the team has scheduled to talk about their experience. Outreach activities include going to local and regional schools, clubs, organizations, media coverage, etc.
To get more information about the Reduced Gravity Student Flight Program and program requirements, interested persons can log onto microgravityuniversity.jsc.nasa.gov.