Find Out How Students Are Going Zero Gravity!

NASA's Microgravity University has announced the lucky class of 2014.

The 2013 University of Texas at El Paso team of Alejandra Vargas, Kimberly Hogge, and Ashley Rivas conduct their reduced-gravity experiment, “Microgravity Effects on Autonomous Airborne Microbial Monitors.” (Photo: Courtesy NASA)

Feb 3, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

The 2014 class of NASA's Microgravity University is about to learn what its program manager, Frank Prochaska, knows well. “Everything reacts different in zero-g," he says. "Things you wouldn’t expect happen.”

One of last year's teams wanted to see if sound could suppress a flame in zero gravity. The students took two big subwoofers into space to test their theory. Prochaska knew that the noise from the subwoofers could be intense, but he had no idea how loud it would be. “It made a horrible, horrible noise in the plane,” Prochaska says. “At one point, the pilot asked if everything was OK. We had flames and noise in a zero-g environment. It was pretty fun to see that being tested.”

The university, a one-of-a-kind program that began in 1995 in collaboration with Texas A&M University, allows high school and college students to propose, design, build, test, and fly a microgravity experiment aboard a modified Boeing 727 aircraft.

More than 5,000 students from all 50 states have been fortunate enough to fly since the project's inception. They have conducted an array of zero-gravity experiments, including the development of a food-growth chamber that can function in a microgravity environment, an investigation of shipping, cracking, and cooking eggs on the International Space Station so astronauts can fry their own eggs in space, and an exploration of small satellite altitude control systems.

The program is highly competitive and super-rigorous. “We treat them just like NASA engineers,” Prochaska says. “The level and detail of the project is the same for a NASA research project. They really have to step up and put together a quality proposal.”

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Like others before them, the April class will meet at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston and fly out of Ellington Field. These will be high schools students and their teachers from schools that partner with NASA through its HUNCH Program. The class of college students will conduct experiments over the summer.

While the students may only attend the program for a few days, they log long hours and months of research before they arrive. Before NASA asks for proposals in August or September, students conduct experiments and ponder theories to get into the competitive program. In October, they submit their applications. NASA staff evaluates submissions on merits including feasibility and safety. “If we can’t do it safe, we aren’t going to do it,” Prochaska says.

When students arrive in Houston, they assemble their experiments usually on a Friday afternoon. On Monday morning, they appear before 20 NASA engineers to defend their project and explain why it is safe. The reward for all their work is flying and experimenting in microgravity, which Prochaska says, is “phenomenal."

The aircraft is crewed by a pilot, a copilot, a flight engineer, and two reduced-gravity test directors; a flight doctor, two video-crew members, and two photographers are also on board. Most test equipment is bolted to the floor.

To achieve zero gravity, the pilot flies in an up-and-down parabolic pattern, which creates about 25 seconds of microgravity as the nose of the plane tips over the top of the parabola to descend toward Earth. This occurs 30 to 40 times in a typical flight.

Before applying for 2014, students were encouraged to read a paper by NASA called “Critical Technology Determination for Future Human Space Flight.” It details the type of projects NASA needs to support its space program in the future as more astronauts undertake long-term travel. Student projects for 2014 include investigating the hindrance of air bubbles in liquids in microgravity and the necessity of self-sustaining greenhouse systems.

“The goal isn’t just to produce students who are interested in STEM but to produce tomorrow’s STEM leaders," Prochaska says. “We are going to challenge these kids and give them more than they can take. It’s amazing to see what these kids can do when they are pushed.”

This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.