A team of Drexel engineering students got the ride of their lives as they got to test experiments they designed aboard NASA’s “Weightless Wonder” aircraft, July 7-15.
The five students, Todd Bickel, Matthew D’Arcy, Jesse Ellis, Reuben Krutz and Elizabeth Santangelo, were chosen to join NASA’s Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program. The program gives undergraduate students from Universities across the nation a chance to fly on a NASA aircraft that simulates reduced gravity and test experiments that they proposed, designed and built.
“We were treated the same way any company, business, or agency would go through,” Bickel said of the proposal process. “We made a 60 page report for the safety check that NASA required and we had inventor all of the smallest parts so they would float away.”
The experiment flown by the team was the Characterizing the Performance of the CubeSat Deployable Boom in Microgravity test. Each of the students observed the effects of low gravity on an attitude control device that the team had developed in preparation for a Drexel funded satellite that is being designed at the College of Engineering.
“We made a model of the satellite by machining all of the parts in the Drexel metal shop,” Bickel said. “We got the whole thing through TSA somehow.”
The Drexel team was selected for the flight from more than 70 proposals that were submitted to NASA. Other teams that were on the same flight originated from the University of California, San Diego, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and California State University, Fresno. The Drexel students were able to make two flights, with a mentor NASA scientist volunteering to help conduct the experiments.
The flight, which left from Ellington Field at NASA’s John Space Center in Huston, produced quick periods of weightlessness as it flew over the Gulf of Mexico by climbing steeply then freefalling in almost 30 parabolic arcs. Each of the periods of lowered gravity only lasted about 18 to 25 seconds, meaning that the team didn’t have much time play in weightlessness as they conducted their experiments.
“It was crazy. I was really nervous that I was going to get sick,” Bickel said. “But luckily I didn’t get sick at all. If you could imagine sitting on the bottom of a swimming pool and trying to touch the bottom and you just float up.”
Bickel also said that the team had an unusual way of training for the mission.
“A few days before [the flight] we went to the boardwalk and went on one of those rides that drops you from a tower because we thought that would prepare us,” Bickel said. “It didn’t.”
After three months of analyzing the data the team will submit their data to NASA in the form of a final report.