The UHCL and San Jacinto College-North team poses with faculty and advisers in front of the aircraft known as the "vomit comet” after completing their first flight. Photo by Joshua Ojeda: The Signal.
Truett Manning The Signal
The goal of education is for students to be able to exercise what they learn in the classroom, but three UHCL students and two San Jacinto College–North students literally got to watch their hard work take flight.
NASA held their latest flight week, April 20-28, at Ellington Field. The Reduced Gravity Student Education Flight Program, or RGEFP, is a program designed for undergraduate students to successfully propose, design, assemble, fly and evaluate a reduced gravity experiment of their choice over the course of four to six months. Christopher Burns and Henry Ascencio, mathematical science majors, and Paul Cusco, a computer engineer major at UHCL, participated in RGEFP along with two students from San Jacinto College – North.
“NASA provides the flight weeks because it’s a way to expose students to the engineering design process and to give them a real world look at what it’s like to be a scientist or engineer,” said Rachel Kraft, public affairs specialist at NASA Johnson Space Center. “Our hope is that the experience of not only flying in microgravity, but of seeing an experiment through all the way from initial conception of an idea to data collection in microgravity, will inspire them to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.”
Students who wish to participate in RGEFP must first form a group then create and submit a proposal to NASA. The students whose proposal is accepted must work on the projects on their own time. Professors and faculty are able to give students guidance when they run into problems but the research and building of the project is student led. If selected, the group works with a NASA principal investigator lead for that project to prepare the experiment for flight week. In addition to the NASA official, one university/college faculty member is invited to fly with each team.
Burns reached out to one of his past professors, Nathanial Wiggins, professor of mathematics at San Jacinto College-North, to recruit additional students to form a team.
“If you pull a team together from independent schools, it shows a willingness to work together that is unprecedented in today’s academic environment,” Burns said.
NASA started the RGEFP in 1995 as a program for engineering students. Throughout the years, it has expanded to include a variety of student groups as well as educators who teach grades K-12. Flight weeks, which occur several times a year, consist of student teams from different universities across the country with 17 teams participating in this most recent flight week.
NASA hopes that by doing this, it will help to provide faculty members with teaching materials in their classroom as well as encourage future students to take part in the program. Teams are able to fly their experiment twice to ensure accurate feedback for their project. If they experience any problems during their first flight, they can correct the issues for the second flight.
The teams test their experiments at Ellington Field on their scheduled day. To simulate reduced gravity, each student team flies in a modified Boeing 727-200 airplane known as the “Weightless Wonder” and nicknamed the “Vomit Comet.” The motion of the flight can make some people feel nauseous and vomit.
The reduced gravity aircraft flies 30 zero parabolic maneuvers, 1 Lunar and 1 Martian maneuver over the Gulf of Mexico. This parabolic pattern provides about a minute and thirty seconds of hyper gravity, about 1.8G-2G, as the plane climbs to the top of the parabola.
Once the plane reaches the top of the parabola, it starts to “nose over” and descends toward Earth. The plane experiences approximately 20-30 seconds of microgravity, or 0G, which is when the students begin testing their experiments.
Burns is no stranger to this experience. This flight week marked his second time to participate in NASA’s program. This year, Burns is the team leader for the UHCL and San Jacinto North flight team.
“The first time you fly, you are so overtaken with the environment, but the second time, you can focus more on the research rather than the environment.”
Jarrett Lockridge, Mathematics major at San Jacinto College–North, participated in NASA’s flight week and flew for the first time.
“The flight was pretty fun to be honest with you,” Lockridge said. “Overall, it was amazing. It brought a group of students together to accomplish amazing things.”
The idea behind the team’s experiment came from NASA researchers. Burns and his team applied to the program to conduct the experiment and submitted their proposal to NASA in October 2011. They began building their experiment over the following winter break. The team’s experiment tested the feasibility of using an Xbox Kinect to replace a keyboard, joystick and mouse in a microgravity environment.
Xbox Kinect is normally used for playing video games. The device is a small, rectangular box with a camera that is placed on a television set. The camera detects the person’s body movements and allows the person to become the controller. Burns and his team believe that this technology has the potential to change the way NASA controls their robotic equipment in space.
“It has the potential to save space and optimize systems,” Burns said.
Burns encourages all students in his field, or anyone interested in science, technology, engineering and/or math, to experience this or a similar program. He says the process can be stressful and taxing, but says it is a very unique, fun and amazing experience.
“There is a camaraderie that develops before and after you fly that is unparalleled to any experience I’ve ever been a part of,” Burns said.
Kraft believes that the results from flight week may help NASA engineers think about the development of future hardware.
“The aim is to give students a unique experience that lets them apply what they’ve learned in the classroom and learn more about how the environment of microgravity alters scientific principles,” Kraft said.
Video shot and edited by The Signal reporter Josh Ojeda.