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Astronaut Candidates Explore Zero-Gravity
NASA's newest astronauts performed a class act aboard the "Weightless Wonder," balancing zero-gravity somersaults and two spacewalks each on the Moon and Mars. You could say it was all in a day's work - or maybe not.

"It's hard to call it work," said Randy Bresnik, a Marine test pilot who began his first day on the job at NASA this summer, training as a pilot astronaut alongside his 10 astronaut candidate crewmates of 2004.

As part of their ongoing flight training on T-38 aircraft, the astronaut candidates recently boarded the KC-135A, a specifically modified four-engine jet aircraft designed to fly in parabolic arcs to produce brief weightless periods, giving them a feel for spaceflight. The aircraft also provided short periods of lunar (1/6) and Martian (1/3) gravity, offering the crew a chance to see what it would be like to set foot on the Moon and Mars.

The 2004 astronaut candidates float inside the KC-135 aircraft.
Image above: The 2004 astronaut candidates float inside the KC-135 aircraft. Credit: NASA

The crew took part in 44 roller-coaster-like ups and downs (called parabolas for the geometric shape of the maneuver), experiencing 20 to 25 seconds of weightlessness at the top of each airborne arc.

With their feet back on ground, Pilots Bresnik and Jim Dutton, and Mission Specialists Tom Marshburn and Chris Cassidy summed up the wild ride in a word: "Awesome!"

"They [astronaut candidates] have come a long way in a very short time," said Astronaut George Zamka, lead for the astronaut training and procedures division of the Shuttle Operations Branch at the Johnson Space Center. "They've had to learn a new culture, a new language and a new mindset."

Zamka introduced the crew -- a team made up of three educator astronauts, three military pilots, a Navy SEAL, an astrophysicist, two physicians, and an engineer -- to media during a briefing, giving individual accolades to the group of astronauts on their flight-training success.

The 2004 astronaut candidates participate in a briefing.
Image above: The 2004 astronaut candidates participate in a briefing. Credit: NASA

"It has been great," said Mission Specialist-Educator Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger, 29, of Vancouver, Wash. "Flying [the KC-135A] was one of my favorites," describing the spaceflight-like experience as "absolute freedom."

Also training with the 11-member astronaut candidate class are three Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronauts: Akihiko Hoshide, Satoshi Frukawa and Naoko Yamazaki.

Maneuvering in a reduced-gravity environment like that in space offsets one's normal orientation, but even in its "unstable" state, Yamazaki felt it was worth the experience. "I felt sick at first," she said. "But, surprisingly, my body quickly accommodated to being weightless."

With several weeks of flight training already completed, the astronaut candidates have a little more to go before they embark on the next step of spaceflight preparation. Upon close of flight training, Zamka will then guide the crew in Shuttle Systems training, followed by Station training.

Counting down the days of thunder, the astronaut candidates look forward to graduation day, with only 18 months of training to complete until they are deemed official members of NASA's Astronaut Corps.