Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Weightless Heather

Not me Heather. Another Heather.

Heather R. Smith of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center was on my blog last September, when she wrote a great article about the spaceflight simulation studies for the Education section of the NASA.gov website family, called "Lying Around."

This time, she got to be the test subject! Or at least a willing witness – in the Reduced Gravity Flight Program at NASA Hangar 990, Ellington Field, Houston. There she joined a group of students from the University of Colorado, as well as NASA engineers and scientists, for an experience in weightlessness.

Reduced Gravity
The UC students flew two Wilberforce pendulums, to observe behavior under compression and subsequent release into micro-gravity – an experiment inspired by a similar analysis flown on Skylab III in 1973. Heather kept a brief but exciting "Freefalling" blog of 12 posts, describing the teams’ experiences.

Wouldn’t it be incredible to go into the Hypobaric Altitude Chamber where astronauts train?? Their physiological training required that they do just that, to simulate flying at 25,000 feet and experiencing mild hypoxia (oxygen deficiency). She describes spinning exercises as well, trying to do math problems after these difficult tests, and she has comments from all the team members about what they experienced physically and mentally… (sure makes you appreciate what astronauts have to endure repeatedly).

After training, they flew 30 parabolas in a C-9 Airplane. Weightlessness occurs as the plane crests upward toward the top of a parabola curve and begins falling. Each episode of a 10,000 foot drop lasts for perhaps 30 seconds. The plane will then pull out of the fall and start flying back upward. (Ron Howard used this technique to film much of the Apollo 13 movie.)

Heather Smith
I love how Heather described the experience: "Now I understand what people mean when they struggle to find the words to describe microgravity. Words like “cool,” “amazing” and “awesome” come to mind, but even those are not good enough... I remember thinking, during those serene moments where I was just looking around, that this must be what it’s like on the International Space Station… with people moving around by “flying” through the air. It’s quite awesome to experience even just a fraction of what astronauts in space feel. After experiencing how difficult it can be to control your body and do simple tasks, I am able to appreciate more fully the superb work astronauts do up there in their unique environment of space."

To read the rest, go to her section of Blogs.Nasa.gov…!