February 28, 2003
SMITH STUDENTS SCHEDULED
FOR WILD RIDE
Seven Engineering Students
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Microgravity Research at NASA Houston
NORTHAMPTON, Mass.--While most college
students look forward to spring break as an opportunity to soak
up some sun in a warmer climate or just catch up on sleep and
laundry, a team of Smith College students, all engineering majors,
will be submitting themselves to the initial thrill and accompanying
nausea of microgravity, all in service of improving space flight.
Seven students--four fliers and three ground crew members--will
spend March 13 to 22 as participants in the Reduced Gravity Student
Flight Opportunities Program at NASA in Houston [http://microgravityuniversity.jsc.nasa.gov].
The so-called Zero-G program gives students the opportunity to
conduct research in a near-weightless environment. Flights on
NASA's KC-135a aircraft will follow a parabolic arc, during which
the students will experience simulated weightlessness due to
the momentary minimizing of gravity.
In sending students to Houston, Smith
joins more than 50 other colleges and universities in the country
with students flying in the program this year. They include engineering
powerhouses such as CalTech, Purdue, Texas A & M and the
University of Michigan. This year, Smith is the only women's
college selected to participate.
During the flights, the Smith team
will collect data based on an experiment they proposed to NASA
officials last fall. Their project, titled "Human Performance:
Changes in Spatial Orientation and Vestibular Behavior as a Result
of Changes in Gravity," will examine why and how our sense
of balance is compromised in weightless environments.
Those are not academic questions, notes
junior Susan Strom of Encino, Calif., who serves as team leader
and will be one of the first Smith students to fly.
"Microgravity flights are one
of the worst places for motion sickness," she points out,
which may explain why the Boeing 767, on which she and her teammates
will fly, has been dubbed by many the "vomit comet."
Among their final pre-flight preparations,
the students are required to compile a Test Equipment Data Package--basically,
an inventory of all test machinery they plan to take on board.
Junior Caitlyn Shea of Northampton, Mass., who will serve as
one of the team's alternate fliers and a member of the ground
crew, says the process of assembling equipment has been one of
the most satisfying aspects of the experience because it underscores
the fact that the project is entirely student-run.
"I really like how we've taken this whole project from start
to finish, from assembling the application to acquiring data
to doing background research," she says. "The research
experience has been invaluable."
The impetus to apply for the Zero-G program came from a talk
given last year at Smith by NASA astronaut Bonnie Dunbar. Following
Dunbar's visit, Domenico Grasso, R.B. Hewlett '40 Professor of
Engineering and the director of the Picker Program in Engineering,
solicited interest from students in drafting a proposal. Corinna
Lathan, president of AnthroTronix, a Maryland engineering firm
that seeks to promote interaction between people and technology,
advised the students in writing their 74-page proposal. Lathan
is serving as a visiting professor in Smith's engineering department
After returning from Houston, the students will produce a report
of their findings, which they will seek to publish. They also
plan speaking engagements at Smith and at local schools and hope
to design lesson plans about microgravity for elementary and
secondary school students.
In addition to Strom and Shea, team members include Sarah Jaffray,
a junior from Blue Hill, Maine (ground crew); Christine Johnson,
a junior from New York, N.Y. (ground crew); Jessica McCartney,
a sophomore from Idaho Falls, Idaho (flier); Kerri Rossmeier,
a junior from Bozeman, Mont. (flier); and Mimi Zhang, a sophomore
from Fremont, Calif., (flier).
Smith College is consistently ranked among the nation's foremost
liberal arts colleges. Enrolling 2,800 students from every state
and 55 other countries, Smith is the largest undergraduate women's
college in the country. Established in 1999, Smith's Picker engineering
first and only engineering program at a U.S. women's college--is
focused on developing broadly educated, well-rounded engineers
capable of assuming leadership roles in corporations, non-profit
organizations and technology-related fields. The first class
of engineering majors will graduate in 2004, earning bachelor's
degrees in engineering science.