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Smith Students Scheduled for Wild Ride
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 comet.”

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.

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