While the super-rich can pay millions to experience weightlessness at the International Space Station, some college kids have figured out how to experience the thrill of zero gravity for the student-friendly price of $0.
Through NASA’s Microgravity University program, teams of college students get to ride in and conduct experiments on a NASA jet that simulates zero-gravity conditions. Undergrads around the country will be sending their letters of intent to apply to this year’s competition this week, with completed applications due next month.
“It’s really an ‘as only NASA can’ program,” said Sara Malloy, coordinator of the Microgravity University office at Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Students spend 10 days preparing for and going on their flights. Though the program’s science doesn’t get piped directly into NASA’s high-profile programs, some of the research can end up in the hands of engineers. And the students themselves get unique training in one of the strangest environments a human can experience.
The Microgravity University program hasn’t been heavily publicized, but it has reached more than 2,800 students at more than 165 colleges and universities since it first began in 1995. The trips on NASA’s Weightless Wonder, known more informally as the Vomit Comet, would cost more than $5,000 per person through the Zero Gravity Corporation.
Justin Nieusma headed up the College of New Jersey’s team, which flew this summer. (Some of Nieusma’s cohorts, though not him, are pictured above.) Their participation grew out of research some students were doing with the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab that required access to microgravity to continue.
“We got amazing scientific data that could never be reproduced on Earth or any other program I know of,” said Nieusma, now a graduate student in astronomy and astrophysics at University of Michigan.
Their experiment looked at how “dusty plasmas” like the ones that compose Saturn’s rings and comet tails react under different conditions. The experiments that College of New Jersey designed and built have been good (and lucky) enough to fly both of the past two years.
“You have to go through a very rigorous application process. These applications are like 50, 60 pages long, full of details that they want out of you,” Nieusma said. “It’s a crazy program, competitive, and we were so happy we got in the second year.”
By flying up, then nosing down, microgravity conditions are obtained for 18 to 25 seconds a time, and engineering students attempt to do science as their feet float above their heads. Conducting research while floating in the main cabin of a McDonnell Douglas C-9B Skytrain II isn’t the easiest thing, as YouTube videos of the microgravity experiments can attest.
Students bolt their experiments to the floor of the plane. When the plane dips, and the pull of the Earth’s gravity is counteracted by the force of the airplane’s descent, they attain weightlessness. Holding on to their experiment boxes, they race to complete whatever tasks they can before the plane levels off.
As the microgravity conditions ease, NASA personnel yell out, “Get down!” and the students bring their bodies out of dangerous positions and closer to the ground before gravity itself puts them there.
They also have time for some fun, floating and spinning in microgravity or doing one-armed pushups in simulated lunar gravity only one-sixth the strength of Earth’s.
“It’s the opportunity of a lifetime,” Niusma said.
Not everyone’s proposals get accepted, unfortunately. Recent budget cuts have made the program, which used to accept about half of the applicants, more competitive.
Sean Currey, a junior at Dartmouth who wants to go into aeronautics, led a dedicated team that wanted to study how IV-fluid–bag preparation works in microgravity. The team went through the entire process, but didn’t get to fly. Still, Currey’s team will try again this year.
“The people who read over the proposal thought it was a great idea, but they wanted more technical writing and background in the proposal,” Currey said. “We’re going to take the comments that NASA gave us last year, and resubmit it.”
Images: NASA. 1. Rachel Sherman in Superman gear flies in between Russell Jones (left) and Chaz Ruggieri (right). 2. The “Weightless Wonder” in microgravity mode.