ACC Students Fly High with NASA

For most people, floating through microgravity is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But ACC student Christina Vasquez has done it twice through NASA’s simulated reduced gravity program.

“It changed my entire plan for the future,” says Vasquez, reflecting on ACC’s participation in the space agency’s Microgravity University. “The first time I flew in 2007, I was a pre-med major. Once the experience was over, I changed my major to engineering. After flying for the second time this summer, I’m more confident than ever in my decision.”

Photos courtesy NASA

The ACC group was one of 14 college teams across the country – including Yale University, Purdue University, and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University – selected to take part in this year’s program. Microgravity University gives students an opportunity to perform science experiments aboard a modified Boeing 727 aircraft, which makes roller-coaster-like climbs and dips to produce periods of weightlessness. NASA has chosen ACC to participate three times.

“I’m extremely proud,” says Dr. Allen Underwood, an ACC physics professor who has overseen each team. “It’s incredibly rewarding to see our students play in the same league as senior aerospace students from prestigious universities.”

The 2010 ACC team designed an experimental apparatus to address the muscle atrophy and bone deterioration astronauts experience resulting from the lack of gravity in space. The experiment, which the team began to devise last fall, was performed with software and a handmade device that used a vacuum pump to simulate free weights. Astronauts could use the software to specify a certain weight, such as 40 pounds, and it would actually feel as though they were lifting 40 pounds, enabling them to work their muscles even in zero gravity.

Before taking their experiment into the air, the ACC students underwent days of briefings, tests of their device, and physiological training at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

“NASA explained how to deal with the pressure changes and spatial disorientations our bodies and brains would experience,” says Billy Baccam, a sophomore engineering student. “We even went into NASA’s hyperbaric chamber that simulates flight altitude and pressure dynamics so we’d know what to expect.”

Then it was time to fly – and float. The team broke into two groups to test the experiment on consecutive days.

“When the airplane made its first dive and everyone started to lift off the floor, it was very surreal,” recalls Baccam. “Your brain freaks out at first because you become disoriented and can’t tell down from up. After a few times, I got less queasy. But I’m glad I took the anti-nausea medicine NASA offered. Without it, I don’t think I could have kept my breakfast down.”

While floating, the ACC team got down to business.  However, the experiment didn’t go exactly as planned.

“It was a shock to discover after the first flight that much of the data obtained was faulty,” says Dr. Underwood. “We checked things on the ground between flights, and all went well, but the problem reappeared in zero gravity the next day. Fortunately, we did get about a dozen good data points – enough to demonstrate the validity of the design concept.”

Dr. Underwood says regardless of how the device functioned, students took away important lessons.

“They experienced directly that some things in life take time and effort but are worth it,” he notes. “And they learn their ideas can become real – that they can create their own reality by purposeful action.”

The students don’t underestimate the value of their experience either.

“Team work was a big part of it,” says Baccam. “Working in a diverse group showed me that being able to communicate your ideas, listen carefully, and compromise are very important if you want to accomplish anything.”

The flights may be over, but the team’s work isn’t. The students are trying to reproduce the problems experienced by the device in the air to trace the cause. They also must analyze the data collected and submit a report to NASA.

Meanwhile, Dr. Underwood is already thinking ahead to this fall’s proposal.

“We can potentially continue the project in next year’s Microgravity University,” he says. “NASA allows up to two follow-up experiments on the same apparatus, so the next ACC team may choose to pursue that. Or they may come up with another idea altogether. We’ll have to wait and see.”

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