Weightless and Wonderful

June 16, 2011

GW engineering students conduct zero-gravity experiment as part of NASA program.

By Laura Donnelly-Smith

GW graduate Hannah Stuart, B.S. ’11, had many memorable experiences as a student in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. But nothing can beat her time as a human ball.

“I curled up into a little ball and two of the crewmembers tossed me back and forth,” Ms. Stuart said, smiling broadly. She wasn’t worried about being dropped. She was weightless, and so was everyone else on the “Weightless Wonder” aircraft as it flew in parabolic patterns above the Gulf of Mexico. Ms. Stuart and her team members—GW graduates Micah Foster, B.S. ’11, Andrew Breest, B.S. ’11, and GW seniors Danielle Barsky and Matt Wilkins—were participants in NASA’s “Microgravity University” program and conducted a scientific experiment in microgravity conditions last week. The term “microgravity” indicates that gravitational forces are not quite zero, but are very small.

NASA Microgravity University, officially called the Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program, is a competitive educational program in which teams of undergraduate students submit proposals detailing a scientific experiment they wish to conduct in microgravity conditions. For 2011, 14 teams were selected to participate out of more than 60 applicants. This year marked the first year since 1999 that a GW team has been selected, Mr. Foster said.

Mr. Foster, who served as the team’s leader, had heard about the Microgravity University program and wanted to submit a proposal. Last fall, he recruited Ms. Stuart and Mr. Breest to work with him on developing a project idea. They set up meetings with several members of the SEAS faculty to discuss viable projects, and ultimately decided to work on a fluid dynamics project that was suggested by Charles Garris, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. The project would investigate the Plateau-Rayleigh instability principle, which explains why fluids break up into smaller droplets as their streams accelerate to the ground (think of a thin stream of water dripping from a kitchen faucet).

Fluids tend to minimize their surface area due to their surface tension, Mr. Foster explained. Knowing how fluids behave makes technology like ink-jet printers and 3-D prototyping machines possible. The team wanted to see whether the Plateau-Rayleigh instability principle would hold true under microgravity conditions—a question that could have implications for production of materials on the International Space Station, as well as in fields like pharmaceutical manufacturing.

“The students were able to build and design the test apparatus from scratch,” Dr. Garris said. “I would throw out suggestions, but they were a self-directed group.”

The students learned in December that their proposal had been accepted, and Ms. Barsky and Mr. Wilkins joined the team. They used the next six months to build and test their experiment apparatus, as well as conduct outreach activities with science students at local schools.

Testing was vitally important, Dr. Garris said, because under microgravity conditions, everything would be more difficult. “The secret was drill, drill, drill,” he said. “The students practiced doing the experiment over and over. Their skill in conducting the experiment would be the most important thing.” The testing apparatus included a syringe pump that the students used to create a steady stream of fluid, kept at a constant velocity. A camera system captured images of the fluid as it was released from the syringe and as droplets formed.

NASA had strict safety standards that all teams’ projects needed to meet. “We went through five official design alterations over the course of the project, but we probably did hundreds in between,” Mr. Foster said. Each team also had to pass a Test Readiness Review (TRR) during the week immediately preceding their flights. During the 10 days the students spent in Houston at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, they used any available time when they weren’t in training, in anti-motion-sickness briefings or on tours to adjust and retest their equipment. The process, while exciting, was stressful, Mr. Breest said.

“You’re working in an airplane hangar, it’s really loud, and NASA people are coming by and telling you you’re doing it wrong,” he said. Dr. Garris, who accompanied the team to Houston for the first week, said that the group’s NASA advisers were helpful and encouraging but strict. “They went through our apparatus with a fine-tooth comb for safety. It’s really rigorous. But they were nice about it.”

After all the planning and drilling, the team successfully passed its TRR. Team members were scheduled for two flights on Friday, June 10, with Mr. Breest and Ms. Stuart flying the first flight and Mr. Foster and Ms. Barsky flying the second. (Mr. Wilkins was unable to attend Flight Week in Houston because of a serious illness.) The team members were divided to provide more opportunities for data collection.

The morning of their flights, the team members attended last-minute briefings and took anti-nausea medication to decrease the odds that they’d get motion sickness, which affects some people more seriously than others. They also learned, in physiology briefings, tricks to minimize motion sickness while in zero gravity—including keeping their heads still as if wearing neck braces, not looking out the windows and singing to distract themselves.

The “Weightless Wonder” plane, which is owned by a company called ZeroG and contracted by NASA, simulates weightlessness by flying a series of approximately 30 parabolic curves over the Gulf of Mexico. Near the crest of each parabola, fliers in the plane experience about 25 seconds of weightlessness. So during the 100-minute flight, which includes take-off and landing, fliers can expect about 13 total minutes of weightlessness, Ms. Barsky explained. During this time, teams are expected to run their experiments and gather as much data as possible.

The adjustment to microgravity during the first parabola was a bit frightening, Mr. Foster said. “The first time in zero G, you feel like the plane is dropping out from under you, and you want to grab onto something. That makes it worse. It’s best if you can relax.” He and Ms. Barsky used about three parabolas to acclimate themselves to microgravity conditions before starting their data collection. Neither of them—nor Mr. Breest and Ms. Stuart on the morning flight—got sick. About six students vomited on the first flight out of 20 students in the plane, and only two on the second flight.

Between each microgravity cycle, the students experienced 2 Gs—double the gravitational pull that we feel on earth. During these times, even lifting an arm was difficult, Ms. Stuart said. And throughout the flight, moving around safely was a challenge. “The slower you move, the easier it is. You only have maybe 30 seconds of weightlessness per parabola, and if you were floating over the apparatus or a teammate and you left zero G, you could fall on something,” she said.

But when the data collection was complete, each team member still had some parabolas left over for fun before the flight ended. And they took full advantage of it. In addition to floating around the plane, they played with a Slinky in zero gravity and tried the “human ball” trick. Mr. Breest tried a series of somersaults in zero G. The pilot also flew two extra parabolas simulating lunar gravity and Martian gravity. “This project was quite an unbelievable send-off from GW,” Mr. Breest said. “It’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

All the team members said they were grateful for the support—both emotional and monetary—that GW and SEAS provided. “When we wrote our proposal for NASA, it could only be accepted if we also submitted an accepted budget from the school,” Mr. Foster said. “So SEAS had to take a pretty big leap of faith for us, and they did. They were excited that we were excited.”

Ms. Stuart said the group had support from mentors across SEAS, including Dr. Garris, Dean David Dolling and William Rutkowski, a GW employee in the machine shop who helped the students fabricate their experimental apparatus. “The whole support system here was phenomenal, from the administrators and the staff to the machine shop guys. We have so much gratitude toward our mentors in this project.”

This summer, the team will work with Dr. Garris to analyze the data they collected during their flights, and hope to eventually publish it in a peer-reviewed journal. And
next year, all four team members will continue on career and educational paths that will benefit from their microgravity experience: Mr. Breest will be heading to flight school this fall as a second lieutenant in the Air Force; Ms. Stuart will attend graduate school at Stanford University to study sustainable energy system design; Mr. Foster will attend graduate school at Cornell University to study aerospace engineering; and Ms. Barsky will return for her senior year at GW, after which she’s considering entering the workforce as a mechanical engineer.

And if those options don’t work out, they’ve each got a back-up plan in mind.

“So who wants to be an astronaut?” Mr. Foster asked his teammates.

The response was unanimous.


For more information about the project, visit the team's website

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Zero Gravity