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Engineering Students Risk Nausea for NASA

By Eric Sean Weld

Seven Smith students are now part of a group they call “Vertig-0,” for good reason.

Vertigo -- a dizzy, disoriented condition -- is what some of the seven Smith students experienced during several minimum-gravity 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 of 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, minimum-gravity 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 Strom.

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.

As 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 that provided 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 professor with the Picker Program this spring.

Once NASA accepted their proposal, the students had their required medical physicals and underwent pre-flight testing and training 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.

The students 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.”

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