Students Risk Nausea for NASA
By Eric Sean Weld
Seven Smith students are now part of a group
they call “Vertig-0,” for
Vertigo -- a dizzy, disoriented condition
-- is what some of the seven Smith students experienced during several
flights at NASA’s
Johnson Space Center in Houston in March. Vertig-0 is also an apropos acronym
for their group, the Vestibular Research Team in Gravity Zero.
The women -- all
engineering majors, four of whom took the flights, three
whom provided ground support -- were
invited to participate in the space administration’s Reduced Gravity Student
Flight Opportunities Program. Each year, NASA invites students from some 50 colleges
and universities across the country to conduct research in a near-weightless,
environment, based on proposals submitted to the program.
Seven engineering students
served as human subjects for flight tests held at
NASA over spring break, participating in minimum-gravity
flights to measure loss of orientation through sensory
impairment. Among the students participating were
Kerri Rossmeier ’04 (top), Susan Strom ’04,
project team manager (bottom left) and Mimi Zhang ’05
(bottom right). Photos courtesy of NASA.
Smith joined such engineering
powerhouses as CalTech, Purdue, Texas A & M
and the University of Michigan in sending students to Houston. This year, Smith
was the only women’s college selected to participate.
The flights, aboard
a KC-135a aircraft -- a modified Boeing 707 -- follow
a parabolic arc for which the jet climbs steeply into the air before free-falling
for almost half a minute, dropping 10,000 feet in 25 seconds, momentarily eliminating
the gravitational force inside the plane. For those on board, the loss of orientation
and quick motion can become physically incapacitating.
“Microgravity flights are one of the worst places for motion sickness in
the world,” explains Susan Strom ’04 of Encino, California, one of
the Vertig-0 fliers, who served as team manager on the project. It’s likely
for that reason that the flight exercises have been endearingly dubbed the “vomit
comet.” Each flight lasted about two hours and included about 40 “parabolas,” says
The NASA flights were one component of Vertig-0’s project, “Human
Performance: Changes in Spatial Orientation and Vestibular Behavior as a Result
of Changes in Gravity,” a cognitive exploration of people’s sensory
changes in microgravitational surroundings, Strom explains. The students discussed
their findings and their experience at a presentation at Smith on April 30.
sensory cues of orientation -- such as humans’ tactile, visual and
audio senses -- are removed, the students concluded, balance becomes more
difficult. Further, the vestibular system -- the inner-ear mechanism that
helps control our balance -- is directly dependent on gravitational pull;
when gravity is reduced, the vestibular system loses its ability to manage our
orientation. Without the use of that inner-ear mechanism, normal human functioning
is drastically reduced.
“That’s how important your vestibular
system is,” notes Strom. “It
can sense when you’re moving and when you’ve stopped.” That
sense is vital to humans’ ability to remain upright, for example, and
for internal organs to function normally.
For that reason, conducting experiments
and gathering and recording results
aboard the parabolic flights became extremely difficult, said Mimi Zhang ’05,
a flier. Two of the experiment subjects took motion-sickness medication while
two did not. While those who did not take medication provided more consistent
data, they became “quite sick” after several parabolas, according
to Zhang, to the point of being unable to continue.
For the research during the
parabolic flights, a student was secured in a cradle-like, padded contraption
(made at Smith especially for the project), was blindfolded
and wore headphones to impair her hearing. The student was then rotated during
the flight and asked to estimate for how long, when and by how much she was
displaced. Back at Smith, Vertig-0 team members conducted similar experiments
essential comparative data.
In addition to Strom and Zhang, team members
were Sarah Jaffray ’04, from
Blue Hill, Maine (ground crew); Christine Johnson ’04, from New York, New
York (ground crew); Jessica McCartney ’05, from Idaho Falls, Idaho (flier);
Kerri Rossmeier ’04, from Bozeman, Montana (flier); and Caitlyn Shea ’04,
of Northampton, Massachusetts (ground crew).
The students primarily found that
people’s ability to accurately sense
movement in microgravity was diminished (individuals feel that they have moved
farther than they actually have) because of a repression of vestibular sensitivity.
Their findings may be useful to the future of space flight, engineering and medicine.
“By increasing the space traveler’s
ability to perform in space as he/she would on earth,” says Strom, “vestibular
correction technology will assist in the realization of long-term space
travel and improve the efficiency
and success of short-term space travel.”
The student engineers embarked
on the Vertig-0 experiment about a year ago, said
Domenico Grasso, R. B. Hewlett ’40 Professor of Engineering and the director
of the Picker Program in Engineering, following a talk given at Smith by NASA
astronaut Bonnie Dunbar. Grasso solicited interest from students for the program
and the student group produced a 70-page proposal with assistance from Corinna
Lathan, who is president of AnthroTronix, a Maryland engineering firm that
seeks to promote interaction between people and technology, and is a visiting
with the Picker Program this spring.
Once NASA accepted their proposal, the
students had their required medical physicals and underwent pre-flight testing
in Houston. They were also required
to submit a Test Equipment Data Package -- basically an inventory and structural
analysis of all the test machinery they planned to take on board.
plan to publish a report of their findings and will continue to visit local
schools for speaking engagements on microgravity.
Next year, the
Vertig-0 team may return to Houston. “It was an amazing
experience,” says Strom. “Microgravity is leagues beyond any feeling
I have ever experienced. After the flight we were brainstorming about what sort
of research we wanted to do for next year’s student flight campaign.”