College students from throughout the country will get a first-hand look at some of the ups and downs of scientific investigation in the virtual absence of gravity aboard NASA’s KC-135A aircraft near Johnson Space Center in Houston.
NASA's 2002 Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program is funded by the space agency. The program began about five years ago. During those years, 274 student teams and about 1,200 student flyers have participated.
“We offer students a significant educational experience,” said Donn Sickorez, Johnson Space Center education coordinator for the program. “They get a behind-the-scenes look at science and engineering. They also see and experience NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Some of them may choose to work in the space program after completing their education.”
This year, about 54 university and community college teams will begin flights in mid-March. They will be divided into groups of 10 to 12 teams each. The first teams are scheduled to begin flights, the culmination of an almost-two-week stay at Johnson Space Center, on March 12. Other teams will fly later in March, in April and in July.
During the student campaign, teams of up to four students and their experiments fly in the KC-135A’s 60- by 10-foot cargo area. A supervising professor and a student ground-support team will remain at the plane’s base at Ellington Field near the Johnson Space Center to support their flying counterparts. Professional journalists will fly with many of the teams to report on their activities.
During each two- to three-hour flight over the Gulf of Mexico, the aircraft will fly about 30 parabolas, roller coaster-like steep climbs and descents. Each parabola offers the students and their experiments 25 to 30 seconds of zero gravity as they go “over the top.”
Students work months to identify, develop and test their experiments. NASA experts critique them for scientific merit. Each experiment is subject to an extensive safety review.
Early in their Houston stay, students receive preflight training, and assemble and test their experiments. After flying with their experiments, they conduct post-flight debriefings and reviews.
Each team also is required to develop a program for sharing the results of its experiment with teachers, students and the public after the flights. Teams must analyze their data, prepare education and information materials, and submit final post-flight reports.
The KC-135A is used to train astronauts, test hardware and experiments destined for spaceflight, and evaluate medical protocols that may be used in space. Johnson Space Center has been using aircraft since 1959 to expose people and equipment to weightlessness. Further information is available at http://microgravityuniversity.jsc.nasa.gov.
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