Kristian Hahn and Karina Ogilvie both describe it as the best day of their lives.
The aerospace engineering students were part of a five-student CU-Boulder team selected to participate in NASA’s 2009 Microgravity University flight season.
For a week in June, they and teammates Christopher Chavez, Steven Ramm, and Swarandeep Singh worked with NASA engineers and specialists at Johnson Space Center to ready their Wilberforce Pendulum Microgravity Experiment and prepare themselves physiologically for the rigors of flight on the Zero-G aircraft.
They had to pass a Test Readiness Review before a panel of 20 NASA engineers and undergo training exercises including a high-altitude simulation in a hypobaric chamber, in which they experienced oxygen deficiency.
When the students and their experiment were deemed flight-ready, they boarded the aircraft, also called the “Weightless Wonder,” in two shifts. For each group, the aircraft flew a series of 32 parabolas, one mimicking lunar gravity, one mimicking Mars, and the other 30 in a free fall like that experienced by astronauts in space orbit. Each parabola sent the students floating toward the ceiling for a 25-second interval.
“By the third or fourth parabola, Kristian and I figured out how to control our movements so that we could do our research,” says Ogilvie, who graduated a month before the microgravity flight and was hired for a position at Orbital Sciences Corporation in Arizona.
Hahn, who starts his senior year in the fall, agreed. “In time we learned that a flick of the hand was enough to maneuver yourself across the cabin,” he says.
While many people fear they will get sick on the flight (and some people do), Hahn and Ogilvie say the motion sickness medication they were given before the flight probably helped them avoid that. Hahn says his experience with breakdancing also might have contributed to his comfort: “I’m used to not always having my feet on the ground,” he says.
Originally from Parker, Colorado, Hahn traces his interest in aerospace back to a high school visit to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. A friend of his brother’s who previously graduated from CU's aerospace engineering program explained to him the workings of a jet engine—and he was hooked.
Ogilvie, who came to CU-Boulder from Colorado Springs, had already earned a bachelor’s degree in classical music performance when she decided to pursue her passion for space with a second degree in aerospace engineering.
Hahn became aware of the microgravity opportunity offered by NASA during an August 2008 meeting of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space, an organization of students who share their passion for space with other students as well as the broader community.
He quickly assembled four other students interested in writing a proposal for the program, including Chavez, a mechanical engineering junior, Ramm, an aerospace freshman, Singh, an aerospace junior, and Ogilvie. Even though she was in her busy senior year, Ogilvie jumped at the chance to put in a proposal after tossing around some experiment ideas with classmates in previous years.
In early January, the students learned their proposal was one of about 20 chosen for the 2009 flight season—and that’s when the hard work really started.
“We had to design our apparatus at that point and pull together some funding to build it and pay for our trip,” Ogilvie says, adding that EEF, UROP and the AES department all provided support. “It was an intense semester.”
Their science mission was to determine the coupled angular and linear modes of a Wilberforce pendulum without the influence of gravity. A similar experiment was attempted during a NASA Skylab III mission, but the students came up with a novel design they hoped would have better results.
Among the biggest challenges—and payoffs— Ogilvie says, was learning to work together as a team. The five students were very diverse, both culturally and technically, ranging in school year from freshman to senior.
Hahn says that everyone was so motivated by the prospect of experiencing microgravity that it kept them going with little sleep and few weekends off during the semester.
The team also had an outreach mission, which included making presentations to local high schools and creating a 45-minute video presentation about microgravity, engineering, and NASA for teachers’ use. For the video, they had fun experimenting with such items as a yo-yo, Slinky, and a hand-held fan while in microgravity.
“When Steven tossed the yo-yo out in front of him, it didn’t fall toward the ground,” Hahn says. “Instead it hovered in the air until he made it roll back to him. It was amazing!”
A co-op student now on this third assignment with NASA at Kennedy Space Center, Hahn says he took on the extracurricular project for the leadership opportunity and to learn what NASA requires in any kind of a design project, as well as to experience microgravity.
One day, he’d like to become an astronaut, but he also plans to earn a doctorate and then become a college professor. Either way, he figures, his NASA microgravity experience offers firm ground to stand on.
For more information and pictures, see the blog written by NASA's Heather Smith, who accompanied the CU team on the flight (http://blogs.nasa.gov/cm/blog/freefalling).