Spacekids in Zero-Gravity Rita Karl, reporting for spacekids.com
So you want to be weightless?
The NASA KC-135 airplane (affectionately known as the vomit comet) can
allow you to experience weightlessness like the astronauts! The' Fly
High' program, now in it's fourth year, offers high school and college
students the chance to design an experiment and fly it in the same
zero-gravity environment that astronauts use to train in before they go
into space. The KC-135 airplane is a large padded laboratory that just
happens to fly parabolas (curves) simulating 20 seconds of weightless at
a time at the top of the curve.
Spacekids.com reporter Rita Karl flew with a team from Texas A&M
University. The team was made up of three engineering students who
designed a simulated cockpit to study the reaction times of astronauts
in zero-g. Students Susan Ramsey, Bo Beeman and Bowie Hand worked for
one year to perfect a cockpit which times how long it takes an astronaut
to reach for and flip a variety of switches. This movement time study
was designed to find out if new astronauts would have difficulty
reacting in a zero-g environment if an emergency occurred. It usually
takes rookie astronauts several hours to adjust to moving in zero-g.
Rita, Bowie and Susan
One side effect of weightlessness is 'space sickness' which is related
to motion sickness. Your inner ear, which regulates how your body knows
what is up or down becomes very confused in zero-g and causes some
people to get sick on this plane and in space. Susan mentioned before
the first flight that she was "more worried about the test subjects than
the experiment". After flying the experiment twice she said that she
felt the 'exact opposite'! None of the team members got sick at all but
the human muscular recording system failed twice due to battery
problems. The cockpit electrical timer and switching system worked
perfectly however and they got more data than they expected. Test
subject Bowie who was a first time flyer felt that it was harder to
react in zero-g. Susan who has had experience flying the zero-g plane
before thought it was easier. The team's college advisor Dr. Bill Hyman
said 'I have watched this group put together this experiment largely on
their own... and they did a fantastic job!"
"Zero-g and I feel fine!"
The next day I flew with the team! I sat in the cockpit for takeoff and
enjoyed watching the aircraft commander doing her 'right stuff". As we
were approaching the first parabola things got quiet in the cabin (8
teams were flying, 16 students) and we held on tight. The flight
surgeon smiled and told me the first one would be the 'kicker' and he
was right. I was holding on to the experiment, and then my legs flew up
behind me. I let go of the bar and it was unbelieveable, I was
floating! At first I had the sensation of going over the top of a
roller coaster but that vanished immediately. It was replaced by an
indescribably free feeling No restraints holding you down! I was
floating and so was everything else! My camera rose up in front of me.
I felt safe and relaxed and completely at home.
Suddenly the cry of "Feet down, coming out!" was followed by a distinct
g-force pressing me to the floor. Everyone stayed still until the
second parabola and then the excited students begin cheering! We did a
video interview introducing the students, Bowie and Susan, and the
experiment (soon to be available here at spackids.com!) and tried out
the first of my physics toys, the space yoyo.
The space yo-yo did not work in zero-g because it relies on gravity to
make the bottom ball orbit the middle ball. However, the regular yo-yo
worked like a charm as long as you didn't let it sleep! The gyroscope
also worked perfectly and did not tumble. Trying to stay near it was the
challenge, because every time you pushed off a wall you kept on going!
The bubbles were fun, surface tension being evenly applied all around
making them stronger - although they all crashed to the floor at the end
of the parabola! Water from my water bottle formed perfect spheres,
which splattered upon return to gravity.
The zero-g plane pulls up very steeply and you experience 2-g's for a
short period of time. This makes your body and all of your things feel
twice as heavy as usual. I asked to sit in the cockpit and watched the
horizon line vanish and the sky turn bluer until we pitched over and
everything became weightless. Then I could see the horizon line and
then the Gulf of Mexico. It looked like we were heading straight down
for a crash! But the pilot effortlessly pulled the plane back up for
the next maneuver.
During the 30 zero-g parabolas we all tried different moves to see how
much control we had over our bodies. Not much! You immediately lose
track of what is up or down. The only points of reference are other
floating bodies and experiments bolted to the floor. I loved it! I
did NOT want to come back to gravity! It was mesmerizing and very
At the end of the flight the pilots simulated moon gravity (1/6th g) for
one parabola which was really amazing, I felt so light! Susan did
push-ups with our entire team on her back! Then we did one parabola in
Mars gravity (1/3rd g). These were great because you could jump so high
and do handstands without any effort at all! Gymnastics on Mars will be
awesome! I can promise you people who have experienced Mars gravity
will be the first to sign up to go. This was an incredible experience,
and a great opportunity for students who are interested in space.
The program is sponsored by the Texas Space Grant Consortium. For more
information on how you can participate visit their website at
To see the Texas A&M project and their results visit their website at:
Images available of our flight are at:
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