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UW students ride NASA zero-gravity plane

Four UW-Madison juniors, including three engineering majors, have been at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston since March 16 to conduct research and experience life in the queasy world of zero gravity.

Patrick McKenna, Marty Harms and Glenn Groeschel, who are studying engineering mechanics, and Maria Spector of the molecular biology program, were chosen as one of 48 college teams nationwide to conduct an experiment aboard NASA's "weightless" training simulator. The student tests, funded by NASA and administered by the Texas Space Grant Consortium, will run through March 28. All of the students belong to the student chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). Additionally, McKenna is completing a co-op experience at Johnson Space Center this semester.

Student on flight

UW-Madison student Maria Spector makes an adjustment to the university's experiment aboard NASA's "weightless" training simulator. (large image)

The reduced-gravity simulator could be seen as a frequent flyer's idea of a bad joke. The revamped Boeing 707, which features a heavily padded fuselage for passengers, flies over the Gulf Coast, doing a series of 35 dives that produce a state of near-weightlessness inside the plane.

While the simulator trains budding astronauts for space travel, it also provides brief windows for studies on the effects of microgravity. The student teams chosen by NASA will run experiments looking at microgravity's effects on everything from candle flames to lava eruptions.

The UW-Madison team is producing a form of polystyrene that is created when chloroform and methanol are mixed together. McKenna says the group hopes to find whether the altered environment will affect the structure or density of the material.

Materials research is likely to take off in space with the construction of an international space station, McKenna says. "The main thing we're trying to prove is that materials perform differently in microgravity, and it's something that should be researched more," he says.

Student on flight

Engineering mechanics major Marty Harms strives to stay focused in the queasy environment of zero-gravity. (large image)

Each weightless dive during the two-hour flight lasts about 30 seconds, so experiments have to be designed to take advantage of short intervals of microgravity. The Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics will lend the UW-Madison engineers its test bench, which is designed to secure equipment for weightless work. Robert Yetka, a researcher with WCSAR, is the team's advisor.

Although the students got physical training before taking the trip, McKenna says air sickness is an all-too-common complication. "It's definitely something they plan for," he says. "They have boxes of air sickness bags ready."

NASA has operated the weightless training environment since 1959, but only recently extended the equipment to government, commercial and academic use.

For more information on NASA's student flight opportunities, see its website at