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Flying High!

May 1, 2008
By cnp
Posted in Chemistry

In April 2008, five U of O students traveled to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston to conduct a self-designed experiment in reduced gravity. They called the trip the thrill of a lifetime.

Tyler Wilson said roller coasters and amusement parks will never be the same for him again. Kathy Erickson called it an experience of a lifetime. Jessica Reed described it as the most amazing thing she has ever done.

The three U of O students were discussing their experience in NASA’s Reduced Gravity Student Flight Program at the Johnson Space Center. Chemistry Professor Dr. Brian McFarland and students Wilson, Erickson, Reed, Brett Spahn and Jessie Gibson were part of a U of O "microgravity team" that spent 10 days in late April at NASA headquarters in Houston.

The U of O team spent the time in Houston preparing and conducting a self-designed and self-constructed experiment in a reduced gravity environment. The students underwent a series of evaluations, training and equipment modifications that culminated in flights aboard a specifically modified C-9 cargo transport jet that can produce periods of weightlessness lasting 18 to 25 seconds at a time. The plane, dubbed NASA’s "Weightless Wonder," flew about 30 parabolas --- a steep climb followed by a free fall --- over the Gulf of Mexico.

Five U of O Students participated in an experiment at NASA's Johnson Space Center." src='data:image/svg+xml,%3Csvg%20xmlns=%22' data-src=

U of O students (front row, from left) Jessica Reed, Kathy Erickson, (second row) Tyler Wilson, Jessie Gibson and Brett Spahn had to go through physiological training before experiencing microgravity.

In order to apply for the program, the Ozarks team had to come up with a viable experiment, develop it, and make a proposal to NASA. Ozarks’ experiment was to determine if microgravity has an effect on water absorption by polyelectrolytes. The highly absorbent polyelectrolytes are valued for their ability to retain water, a quality that makes it useful in diapers and potting soil. The precise influence of gravity on the polyelectrolyte effect had never been tested before.

McFarland and Reed came up with the experiment idea last summer while Reed was working in a summer internship program in a chemistry lab at the University of Southern Mississippi. All five students helped compile the 21-page proposal to NASA.

"We really put a lot of work into it, and we had no idea what to expect," said Reed, a junior biology and chemistry major from Emory, Texas. "It was probably better we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into. I had no idea how competitive a program it was until after we got selected."

The Ozarks team’s reduced gravity experiments went off without a hitch. Though only four students per team are typically allowed to fly, Ozarks’ team alternate, Gibson, was allowed to fly with another team that was short a member.

The students said their experience in reduced gravity was a thrill of a lifetime.

"It was truly one of the ‘wow’ moments of my life," said Reed. "There’s really nothing that compares with weightlessness. I can’t even find the words to explain it."

Wilson, a junior pre-med major from Claremore, Okla., said, "after experiencing that, a roller coaster will seem pretty tame."

Though the U of O team was still analyzing the results of the experiment several weeks after the test flights, early indications were that microgravity did affect the polyelectrolytes’ absorption speed and ability. The team will issue a final report to NASA three months after the flight, analyzing the experiment’s effectiveness, scientific findings and the conclusions that were drawn from the results.

Jessica Reed and Tyler Wilson in the 'Weightless Wonder.'" src='data:image/svg+xml,%3Csvg%20xmlns=%22' data-src=

Jessica Reed and Tyler Wilson get their first taste of reduced gravity aboard the "Weightless Wonder."

"This kind of testing can have a lot of implications for future space travel," McFarland said. "NASA doesn’t accept these proposals unless they can be beneficial. I think it was a very rewarding experience for our students to come up with an experiment and follow it all the way through the process."

Erickson, a senior psychology major from Waldron, Ark., said the lengthy processes of developing and refining the experiment and submitting stacks of paperwork was well worth the effort.

"There was a lot of stress involved in meeting deadlines and getting things finished, but it was so very much worth it," she said.

Before they could fly, the students had to undergo physiological training, including adjusting to hypoxic conditions, or deficiency of oxygen.

"When hypoxic, people often experience a sensation of lightheadedness and giddiness, which from what I hear produced some pretty funny moments during training," McFarland said.

McFarland first learned of the program while in graduate school at the University of Southern Mississippi. Though he wasn’t eligible to apply for the program because he was a graduate student, McFarland knew many of the USM students who took part in the program. He invited one of the former USM students to Ozarks last fall to talk about the NASA program and spark interest.

Part of the proposal the U of O team submitted to NASA included an education outreach component that will have the Ozarks students talking about the NASA program to other college students and students in high school and junior high.

"Hearing from someone who had been through the program was what really got me interested in going for it," said Reed. "Now that I’ve been through it, I can’t wait to talk about the program and the opportunities that are out there."

Ozarks was one of 40 teams of college students from throughout the country that participated in the annual program that was started by NASA in the mid 1990s. Only about 40 percent of all colleges that apply are chosen for the program. Ozarks is only the third university from Arkansas to participate in the program.

"The students are already talking about applying next year with a follow-up experiment," said McFarland. "Even before we got back home they were talking about their next experiment proposal."

(This story by Larry Isch, Director of Public Relations, first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2008 issue of Today magazine.)