The first ride is for pleasure (and assimilation),
and likely surpasses the thrill of the wildest ride at Disney
World. By the fifth ride, though, it’s time to get to
work. About the ninth or tenth ride, an acute-but-temporary
case of motion sickness steals away the enjoyment from even
the most iron-stomached passengers.
And you still have 10 more rides to go.
They’re called “parabolas”
by the astronauts, NASA scientists and students who are scheduled
to experience them. That’s NASA-speak for a test flight
that follows a parabolic arc during which passengers experience
simulated weightlessness due to the momentary gravitational
minimization, such as exists on the moon.
Between March 13 and 22, four
Smith students, all engineering majors, will come to know
that feeling when they take a series of weightless flights
at NASA in Houston through its Reduced Gravity Student Flight
Opportunities Program. Four more engineering majors will remain
on the ground, one as an alternate flyer and three others
who will help conduct an experiment based on the flights.
The eight students join teams
from more than 50 other educational institutions in the country
in this year’s program, including engineering powerhouses
such as Purdue and Texas A & M universities and the University
of Michigan. This year, Smith’s is the only team from
a women’s college.
Each team will collect data during
the flights and conduct experiments based on their proposals
to the program. Smith’s team will study “Human
Performance: Changes in Spatial Orientation and Vestibular
Behavior as a Result of Changes in Gravity.”
Susan Strom ’04, who will
be one of two Smith students to take the first set of flights,
says her team’s experiment is a cognitive exploration
of people’s sensory changes in microgravitational surroundings.
At minimum gravity, she explains, the inner ear -- humans’
center of balance -- doesn’t work well.
As a result, the microgravity
flights are “one of the worst places for motion-sickness
in the world,” she says. It’s likely for that
reason that the flight exercises -- which are conducted in
a Boeing 767 -- have been endearingly dubbed the “vomit
Nonetheless, Strom seems to accept
that inevitability and looks forward to the experience --
“The first five parabolas, you get to float around the
cabin,” she says -- but notes that there is much to
be done between now and her March flights.
“I’m more excited than nervous,” she says.
“I’m not really nervous about the flight. I’m
more nervous about the revised proposal we have to submit”
by January 31. “And I’m nervous about being able
to collect good data in flight.”
Besides a revised proposal to
be submitted to NASA for final approval, the students are
required to have medical physicals and, six weeks before the
flights, must submit a Test Equipment Data Package that includes
any test machinery they plan to take on board.
The students will undergo further
testing and training upon their arrival in Houston before
taking the flights in their two consecutive final days there.
The idea to submit a proposal
for the program evolved last year after a talk at Smith by
Bonnie Dunbar, a NASA astronaut. Following that talk, Domenico
Grasso, R.B. Hewlett ’40 Professor of Engineering and
the director of the Picker Program in Engineering, solicited
interest from students to produce a proposal. Cori Lathan,
president of AnthroTronix, a Maryland engineering firm that
seeks to promote interaction between people and technology,
guided the students in writing their 74-page proposal. Lathan
will serve as a visiting professor in Smith’s engineering
department in the spring.
After the flights, the students
will return and, before the semester's end, will compile a
report on their findings, which they will seek to publish.