30 April 2010

rocket woman

I'm an astronaut...almost! Today, I had the most amazing opportunity of going on a zero gravity flight. It was absolutely incredible! Totally unlike anything I have ever experienced before or will ever experience again, probably. Because it was so completely different from anything else I've ever felt, it's pretty hard to describe, but I guess the closest thing would be like floating on top of jets of water, or being yanked up by many cords, entirely supported by something else, except without feeling any pressure from any direction. It was sort of like jumping really high on a trampoline or from a diving board, with the periods of weightlessness lasting about 35 seconds instead of 1-2 seconds.

So how did this all come about? The Northrop Grumman Foundation sponsors a program called Weightless Flights of Discovery, to put middle school science and math teachers on these zero gravity flights with the Zero Gravity Corporation (ZERO-G). The goal of the Weightless Flights of Discovery program is to give science and math teachers an unforgettable experience that they can take back to their classrooms and show their students to inspire the next generation to go into careers in science and technology. There are about six flights every year, and one of them happened to be in my region. When I got the e-mail from my principal telling me about the flight, I couldn't complete the application fast enough!

To create a zero gravity environment, a modified Boeing 727 goes through a normal take-off, flies to a designated airspace (ours was over the Gulf of Mexico), and then begins to fly parabolas in the air, diving down at a 45-degree angle for about 10,000 feet and then climbing up the same way. As the plane climbs, you feel almost twice as heavy as you actually are, and as it dives...you become weightless!

My students were so pumped about my going on this flight! I even got a few phone calls yesterday morning from students reminding me to take pictures and videos of the flight. In the weeks leading up to the flight, we talked a lot about different experiments that my team and I could do on board, and about different careers that my students can go into related to science and technology. A bunch of them now want to be astronauts or to design space exploration vehicles. At a training before the flight, I received some great classroom resources that were really helpful for learning about science and technology careers.

At the Mission Briefing before the flight:

When I arrived at the flight venue, I felt a little like a celebrity with all the media that was around filming and photographing what was happening and doing interviews with some of the teachers who were going on the flight.

My experiment team in front of G-Force One:

They were an awesome group to work with! By the way, the flight suits are pretty fetching, don't you think?

Waiting for zero gravity to begin in the padded "floating lounge":

One of our in-flight experiments:

The slinky would stretch out and compress relative to how much gravity we were experiencing as the plane flew its parabolas in the air. It was really cool to watch! Another one of our experiments was comparing how quickly the liquid layers in a density column would separate at different gravities. We also built a robot that threw a paper airplane, which then floated around during the whole zero gravity period. By we, I mean the two members of my team who actually know how to do that kind of thing.

We're flying!

I meant to take more pictures during the zero gravity periods, but I was so disoriented with all the wild floating around that it was all I could do to keep from crashing into other people! I did manage to do a bunch of flips and to "walk" across the ceiling, though.

Waiting excitedly on the floor for the last zero gravity period:

Even though the zero gravity periods seemed to last quite a while, the flight seemed to go by in an instant. After the flight, we returned to the flight venue for a re-gravitation ceremony. Overall, it was a totally mind-blowing experience! Even now, I still feel the sensation of going up and down through the different gravities when I'm still. I'm so excited to share the experience with my students and to show them how cool science is!

To see some videos of the flight experience (and to learn how to get on a future flight!) check out the links below:

http://www.northropgrumman.com/goweightless/ (about halfway down there's a short video about the program)

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