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The Zero-G crew, with their experimental apparatus, left to right, Sarah Rospert, Logan Sirline, Dr. Greg DiLisi, Carissa Bonus, Lauren Heckman, Judson Sprandel, and Maia Matyas.

BW Students Chosen for Once-In-a-Lifetime Flight on NASA’s “Weightless Wonder”

Five Baldwin Wallace University science majors are gearing up for a wild ride, as they prepare to conduct an experiment aboard NASA’s elite "Microgravity University" plane.

The BW contingent is teaming up with a John Carroll University early childhood education major to plan and execute one of just 14 experiments selected from more than 67 proposals for NASA's 2013 Reduced Gravity Student Flight Program. 

“You look at the list, and most of the accepted projects come from large state-supported research institutions, so we feel great about being chosen for a slot,” said Dr. Greg DiLisi, an Associate Professor of Science Education at JCU and adjunct Associate Professor of Physics at BW. DiLisi is mentoring the student research group and will accompany them to the Johnson Space Center in Houston as ground support.

Microgravity Experiment Focuses On Liquid Bridges

BW is the lead institution on the experiment, which involves observing and recording the stability of liquid bridges. The BW undergraduates are handling the technical aspects of the research, while the JCU student coordinates educational outreach.

“Liquid bridges are small strands of fluid that form across neighboring supports,” DiLisi explained. “Simply dip a fork into a cup of maple syrup and you will see thin, cylindrical liquid bridges of syrup span the tips of the fork.”

“Scientists are interested in liquid bridges for a variety of practical reasons, so our experiment will have real world applications,” said student team leader Sarah Rospert ’13. The data will have implications for scientists studying the behavior of porous materials, mechanical bridge stability, collagen formation in joints, spinal cord injuries and certain respiratory illnesses.

Prepping for the Effects of the "the Vomit Comet"

At one of the many pre-flight work meetings held throughout the spring and summer, DiLisi and the student team reviewed information from NASA designed to prepare them for the wild, roller coaster-like ride aboard the “Weightless Wonder,” which has earned another nickname: the “Vomit Comet.”

During two flights, the team will experience approximately 30 extreme, parabolic maneuvers over the Gulf of Mexico, each producing about 20 seconds of near weightlessness (or microgravity) at the top of the arc. Although NASA administers anti-nausea injections, the space agency reports that about one third of passengers are “fine,” one third become “mildly ill,” and one third become “violently ill” – hence the “Vomit Comet” moniker.

“I’ll probably be in the one third that gets sick,” Rospert worried out loud at one team meeting. The May BW graduate from Milan, Ohio added, “I’ve only been on a regular airplane once in my life.”

Reassurance Based on Experience

DiLisi offered reassurance and coached the students on how to handle the intense swings in gravity as the plane rockets up and down 10,000 feet during each maneuver. DiLisi is in a unique position to support the students since he actually flew aboard the “Weightless Wonder” as a faculty mentor to a previous high school student project.

“Ease into it,” DiLisi advised. “Just experience the first few parabolas and allow your body to adjust.”

Once they are acclimated, the students must quickly turn to the experiment they've worked hard to prepare. They will rapidly load strands of various liquids between posts on their custom-made apparatus and observe how the strands behave as the gravitational pull changes.

All-Ohio Student Flyers Plan to Share Details of Their Adventure

The weeklong trip to Houston's Ellington Field, where NASA astronauts train, also includes flight training, safety briefs, engineering test reviews of the experimental apparatus, and some behind-the-scenes tours of NASA facilities.

The all-Ohio student team includes:

• Carissa Bonus '13 (fall) – BW Biology major from North Royalton
• Lauren Heckman, '13 – JCU early childhood education major from Kirtland
• Maia Matyas '15 – BW biology major from Strongsville
• Sarah Rospert '13 – BW biology graduate and student lead from Milan
• Judson Sprandel '14 – BW biology major from Akron
• Logan Sirline '14 – BW neuroscience/chemistry major from Collins

NASA promises to document the flight with photo and video, so the students will be able to share details of their exciting and exclusive endeavor. In the fall, the BW and JCU team members plan to present their research and discuss their experiences at one of the Friday-evening Burrell Observatory Open Houses sponsored by the BW Department of Physics and Astronomy.

Posted July 2013

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