HOUSTON - Some University of Arizona students participating in an elite NASA program didn't just learn the hard way on Tuesday that outcomes aren't always what you expect. They learned the weightless way.
After months of work on a liquid-lens experiment, members of a UA team completed their first microgravity flight as part of NASA's Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program's "Grant Us Space" week, specifically for students at schools associated with the NASA Space Grant program. Teams involved with the program propose, design, build and test reduced-gravity experiments.
Two members of team ANGEL - ANalysis of the Gravitational Effects of Liquid lenses - flew alongside NASA mentor Christopher Johnson to analyze the effects of microgravity on a liquid lens.
The team's experiment was loaded into the NASA 727 on Monday and bolted to the plane's floor. The rig, weighing 79 pounds, underwent rigorous testing to ensure its safety in zero-gravity conditions, as well as being padded. Students were told that cushioning is vital on the giant metal rigs that teams created - one can get cut even on a bolt head in 2.3 Gs.
Team members Sean Gellenbeck and Kevin Newman conducted research with Johnson over the course of 34 parabolas - the aircraft trajectory that allows Earthbound humans to experience zero-gravity conditions like those of space.
Within the 34 parabolas, the team also experienced three parabolas' worth of lunar and Martian gravities at the end of the flight. Lunar and Martian gravities are created within the aircraft when the pilot changes the steepness of the arc in flight.
A liquid lens in microgravity would form a perfect spherical lens, the team hypothesized - something that can't happen on Earth because gravity causes surface deformation, destroying the lens' image quality.
Kyle Stephens, who will go up in the team's second flight today, said his colleagues informed him of the microgravity results - and they weren't what members had anticipated.
"The changes weren't as drastic," he said. "We saw a similar image to that of the ground, and it's not what we were expecting." Stephens said the contrast fringes - a series of green or black lines of a particular wavelength indicating what the lens is doing to the fringe shape -weren't as symmetrical as they'd expected.
In today's flight, the team will use a lens with a more exaggerated curvature, hoping for better results. Additionally, Stephens explained the team members flying today plan to introduce more vibrations to the lens.
Team members completed two preflight briefings and also were given medication by a flight surgeon before takeoff. While motion sickness tends to be a major concern for first-time fliers, flight surgeon James Locke assured team members that NASA officials wanted to ensure the plane was remembered more as the "Weightless Wonder" than the "Vomit Comet."
"If you think of (over-the-counter anti-nausea medication) as the cap gun of motion sickness prevention, then (the administered medication) is the assault rifle," he said.
Flying time was delayed roughly 15 minutes as the result of a misplaced tool - something NASA doesn't take lightly. In earlier briefings, students were told that a misplaced bobby pin is enough to cause a flight accident, and were warned to be on high alert for replacing tools correctly.
Once the aircraft was in flight, students were told to get used to the microgravity for three parabolas and then begin their research.
Time was primarily spent gathering information - something NASA stressed as the primary function of the flight - but officials also encouraged students to use a couple of parabolas to monkey around. Program Manager Douglas Goforth said students were expected to work hard, but also shouldn't get tunnel vision in such a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
While Gellenbeck had tried to anticipate what the experience would be like, he said the first parabola really threw him for a loop.
"It was so weird - just floating off the ground," he said. "I told the team that the best way to handle the transition from hypergravity to microgravity is, you have to let it happen. You can't stand up real fast or you'll fly into the ceiling."
He said while he was tempted to compare the experience to scuba diving, it's just not the same.
"Simply put, it was just … 'Oh my goodness. Here we go!' " he said. "It's hard to describe because it's not like anything else."
Students on a second UA team are slated to take their flights Thursday and Friday.
This is the second of a three-part series on the UA students in Houston for the Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program.
Read more later this week and learn more online at microgravityuniversity.jsc.nasa.gov
Victoria Blute was a NASA Space Grant intern at the Arizona Daily Star for the 2010-11 school year.