Floating above the classroom
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – Growing up, Lake Tahoe Community College student Melissa Thaw didn’t want to be an astronaut. She still doesn’t. But that didn’t stop the 28-year-old from jumping on an opportunity to float weightlessly onboard NASA’s KC135 aircraft that is used to train the men and women of space.
Thaw, along with four other LTCC students, Andrew Burton, Eva Gonzales, Jeff Guarino, Jared Szi, and physics instructor Dr. Cathy Cox, submitted a research proposal to NASA’s Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program in January. Recently, they found out they were accepted into the highly competitive program.
“I couldn’t even believe it,” Thaw said. “I had to read the letters in the e-mail like 10 times.”
The group will travel to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, in June. They will train for three days and then have two days and two flights on the aircraft to conduct their research in the microgravity environment.
“At least in terms of science education, this must be on of the most monumental events in LTCC’s history,” said Martin Wallace, chair of the chemistry department, in an e-mail.
While onboard the NASA jet, the group will be mathematically mapping and studying the structural integrity of soap bubbles under reduced gravity and increased gravity.
“We had to really look at all our ideas and what we could pull off given the constraints of the flight,” Cox said.
The KC135 aircraft, also known as the “Vomit Comet,” flies up and down in parabolic patterns, giving those inside the feeling of increased gravity while going up and about 25 seconds of reduced gravity while going down. Each flight lasts about two hours and consists of about 30 parabolic maneuvers.
The plane was used in the filming of the space movie “Apollo 13.”
“Every person in the world experiences gravity pulling them towards earth,” Cox said. “For a few brief moments we’re going to escape.”
Though they will have to wear flight suits with motion sickness bags in the pockets, Thaw, Burton and Guarino said they were undeterred by the physical demands that the training and the roller coaster of a flight will have. Cox wasn’t so sure about the pressure chamber that simulates high altitudes the group will undergo before boarding the plane.
“We’ll have to sit there until our lips and fingers turn blue,” she said. “And then they’ll give us oxygen.”
Burton said he might go straight into a flip when he first lifts off in weightlessness. Thaw said she imagines it’ll be like scuba diving. But the group agreed the research is just as exciting as the lack of gravity.
“A lot of community college students don’t get to do this rigorous of a research project,” Thaw said.
The students have their work cut out for them, Cox said. They will have to design the experiment, assemble it’s parts and ship it to Texas all on top of a full load of classes.
NASA started the Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program in 1995. Other schools selected include Dartmouth, Yale, Purdue and the California Institute of Technology. This is the first year NASA offered a program specific to community colleges.
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