A Different Kind of Reduced Gravity

When I flew on my reduced-gravity flight (the experience of which is chronicled here), my flight was a total of 32 parabolas — 30 microgravity parabolas, plus one lunar and one Martian parabola where we felt what gravity feels like on those worlds. That’s the “typical” experience in the NASA Reduced Gravity Flight Program where students design, build and fly an experiment for reduced gravity.

When writing recently about students from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who participated in the program in 2009, I noticed right away a major difference between their experience than mine: their experiment tested the flow rates of several different kinds of soils under lunar gravity conditions. They needed to test their experiment in lunar gravity — one-sixth gravity instead of the microgravity on my flight. While my flight gave me a feel for what it’s like to be on the space shuttle or International Space Station, these students got a much longer feel for what’s like to be an astronaut on the moon.

“I sat up and hit the ceiling from the inertia of sitting up,” University of Nebraska student Nick Kleinschmit recalled. “I knew in advance that I would weigh one-sixth in lunar gravity, but actually experiencing the feeling that the first astronauts felt on the surface of the moon was unreal. I was doing push ups on two fingers in lunar gravity.

“We were given three parabolas of zero gravity, and I took full advantage of those to float around and have some fun. That was even crazier than lunar gravity. I have experienced the floating sensation in a pool, but it is unreal to have that feeling in air. I tried to ‘swim’ around, but there is nothing substantial to propel me. I experienced a fleeting instant of feeling helpless, but that was completely erased by an adrenaline rush unmatched by anything I’ve ever experienced. On one parabola we experienced a slightly negative g force, and I remember being upside down on the ceiling for a fleeting instant.  My body accepted this, but my mind was blown.  How did ‘down’ suddenly become ‘up’? It was amazing to be floating around without anything supporting my body.”

Now, technically I got to experience what it’s like to be on the moon too. But on my flight it was only one approximately 20-second lunar parabola, where for these students lunar gravity was the majority of their flight, like microgravity was the majority of mine.

The other reason the Nebraska students got a better feel for lunar g than I did is because during my lunar parabola I was concentrating so hard on trying to traverse the airplane to get in position to record a video I needed for the project that I didn’t really pay attention to how it felt different than the other parabolas. These students experienced some of that as well — not just the sensations of reduced gravity but what it’s like to try to accomplish tasks in that environment. Remember, they’re up there doing an experiment during all of this, learning not only about their specific research question, but also what it’s like for astronauts to do research in the environment of space.

I learned something about the difficulties of working in space on my flight too. On about the fourth parabola, one of the crewmembers from the Reduced Gravity Flight Office told me, “You’re going to have to hold on to something while you take pictures.” Duh, I thought. I should’ve known that, but on Earth I don’t have to hold on to something while taking pictures so it hadn’t clicked yet. Without holding on to the rope along the side of the plane I was bouncing up to the ceiling every time and just floating around in everyone’s way and not really able to get my bearings to take photos. You leave an experience like this understanding just a little bit of what it’s like for the astronauts to work in a reduced gravity environment.

Read more about the University of Nebraska’s experiment and see a video from the flight in this feature article on NASA.gov.

On Air in MidAir

Also, NASA’s Office of Education recently announced an opportunity for students attending Minority Servicing Institutions and Community Colleges to participate in the agency’s Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program. Proposals are due Jan. 26, 2011. See the official agency announcement below for details.

NASA’s Office of Education Seeks Students to Defy Gravity for Science and Engineering