Feature

Virtual Trip Into the World of Weightlessness
01.31.06
The panel of experts answered questions from callers and online in the discussion forum
Perhaps you've seen snippets of video showing pilots, astronauts and scientists floating in a weightless room as they do experiments and train for space. Maybe you'd like to take a trip there, but just where is that zero-g room?

Image to left: NASA test and research pilots Dom Del Rosso, Charles Justiz and John Yaniec help answer questions as part of the panel of experts at Ellington Field. Credit: NASA

On Dec. 6, 2005, more than 20 million students from 46 states and eight countries took a virtual trip to NASA's Ellington Field to find this gravity-defying marvel. What they discovered was the world of physics and the Weightless Wonder -- NASA's specially equipped C-9 aircraft that offers brief periods of reduced gravity.

Ball State University teamed up with Space Center Houston and NASA's Johnson Space Center to produce two, 90-minute, live interactive electronic field trips from hangar 990 to teach students about the physics of gravity.

The area inside the Weightless Wonder is approximately 13.7 meters (45 feet) long, 3 meters (10 feet) wide and 2 meters (6.8 feet) high. A typical flight lasts 2.5 hours. Imagine the big climb and rapid descent of a roller coaster -- and the way it makes your stomach lurch -- and you have an idea of what the passengers are experiencing as they take their flights.

While a roller coaster may do five steep climbs and free falls in its fast run, the Weightless Wonder will make 40 to 60 parabolas. Each up-and-down on the plane lasts much longer than on the coaster, too -- free fall keeps passengers floating for several seconds.

The trajectory path of the Reduced Gravity plane
Image to right: This illustration shows the path of the Reduced Gravity plane. Credit: NASA

Throughout the broadcast, Canadian Space Agency Astronaut Bjarni Tryggvason explained the terms that would be covered, such as position, distance and centripetal acceleration.

With the help of Astronaut Greg Johnson and other Ball State personnel, viewers participated in classroom activities to demonstrate how the C-9 worked. One exercise involved tossing two bean bags together in a parabolic path, much like the C-9, so viewers could predict what passengers on the C-9 would "physically" experience.

Heather Paul, a project engineer for the Advanced Extravehicular Activity team, served as co-host and piloted viewers through various segments and facilitated questions.


Three cameramen record people standing in front of an airplane inside a hanger
Questions covered a variety of interests and came from across the country, from Alaska to Illinois to Texas.

Image to left: Cameras record an educational program with the modified DC-9 aircraft at Ellington Field on Dec. 6, 2005. More than 20 million students tuned in to learn more about NASA's Weightless Wonder. Credit: NASA

"Why do astronauts become sick?" asked a caller from Pennsylvania. Johnson explained that the discomfort originates from the vestibular system that helps your body stay oriented. The combination of what your body's experiencing from the different gravitational forces and what you're seeing can cause you to become sick, but it varies from person to person.

Dom Del Rosso, test director for the C-9 and sensor equipment operator on the WB57, also gave the tourists a glimpse into NASA's Vision for Space Exploration. He explained that experiments done on the Weightless Wonder could help prepare humans for future long-duration space flights back to the moon, or on to Mars and worlds beyond.

The students weren't the only ones to go on an electronic field trip for the first time. For many of the employees that participated, this was a new expedition for them as well.

"Normally, I go speak in classrooms. I've never done anything like this," Rebecca Cutri-Kohart, flight controller, said of her outreach experiences.

Related Resources
Visit the Web for more on Ball State University's Electronic Field Trip "Just Where Is That Zero-G Room?" at:
+ View site

Discover the Weightless Wonder on the Web at:
http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/brainbite/vomitcomet/index.html

Johnson Space Center's Microgravity University: learn more about requirements, deadlines and application procedures for sending your experiment on the Weightless Wonder.
http://microgravityuniversity.jsc.nasa.gov/

More about the Reduced Gravity Program:
http://zerog.jsc.nasa.gov/home.html

The final flight of the KC-135A Reduced Gravity Plane:
http://www.nasa.gov/vision/space/preparingtravel/kc135onfinal.html

My teacher is weightless!
http://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/5-8/features/F_Alissa_Kuseske.html

Behind the Scenes from the Astronaut Candidates 2004 class exercises on the Weightless Wonder:
http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/shuttle/support/training/ascan/2004/journal8.html

Maggie Griffin/NASA Educational Technology Services
Debbie Nguyen/JSC