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Floating Free and Queasy

A reporter climbs aboard NASA's weightlessness-inducing jet, better known as the Vomit Comet. Two hours pass too quickly.

September 15, 2004|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

ON THE NASA KC-135 — Five miles over the Gulf of Mexico, a pilot gunned the engines of a turbojet and rocketed up at more than 50 degrees, steeper than the face of Mt. Everest.

Anu Bhargava and Michael Scott, two recent Purdue University graduates, had been lying on the floor of the fuselage. Now they were pinned there. I was too. The force of the climb pooled the blood in our legs, pulled our cheeks toward the floor and made us feel as if our stomachs were mashed against our spines. We couldn't have been happier.

I had been summoned by NASA to bid farewell to its KC-135, a jet designed by the Air Force as a refueling tanker but used since 1960 to replicate weightlessness, giving astronauts a taste of space's microgravity and allowing them to test new technology. Twice a year, the plane also serves as a unique classroom for college students from across the nation who, over time, have given the plane its better-known moniker: the Vomit Comet.

This fall, the Comet is headed, in NASA's vernacular, to the boneyard, a weedy field where once-cutting-edge rocket components rest with no greater claim to virility than an old Nova jacked up on cinder blocks. It is being replaced by a newer and sleeker DC-9. This would be one of its final voyages.

As we neared the peak of our climb, Scott, 23, managed to turn his head enough to catch a glimpse of an electronic display tracking gravity inside the plane. The red numbers began to fall: 0.99 ... 0.67 ...

"One minute!" a NASA official barked over the din of the engines. "One minute!"

"This is it," Scott said, a serene smile spreading across his face. "Get ready."


In the 1990s, economists began to fret over a decline in the number of engineers and scientists being trained in the United States, even as other countries, such as China and South Korea, seemed to be producing more.

Some predicted an erosion of the nation's technological edge, and NASA is among the government agencies that have shouldered the decline. A federal audit released in January 2003 concluded that NASA's "ability to perform future missions and manage its programs may be at risk" because of shortages in some skill areas, including engineering. Three days later, the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated; critics saw a direct link.

Among other things, NASA has attempted to address the engineering shortage -- and buff its image -- aboard the 135. Given a Clinton administration directive to foster innovation among the young and the smart, NASA opened the jet to college groups in 1997. More than 1,600 students have used it to conduct experiments that require weightlessness.

Some experiments have had practical applications for NASA. For instance, the agency is developing a program in which three or four satellites would fly together, technology that some believe could assist in weather prediction and map-making. Students' experiments have contributed to the agency's ability to teach the satellites to talk to one another, remaining in formation without being steered by humans on the ground.

During this round of student flights, Bhargava, 22, Scott and three other Purdue students were conducting an experiment in spatial orientation. Inside a wetsuit, they had attached tiny devices that vibrated randomly. Each device, called a speaker, was represented by a button on a keypad, which the students wore on their wrists. When one speaker vibrated, they attempted to punch the corresponding button on the keypad.

The task was simple on the ground. But in microgravity, it grew harder. Purdue's theory was that microgravity adds a new and perplexing "cognitive load" -- in effect, it overloads the brain, which has become consumed with trying to orient the body in a strange environment.

If studies like this could help isolate problems that lead to spatial disorientation, resulting technology could have a slew of real-world applications, Scott said. Soldiers, for example, who frequently become disoriented in the heat of battle, could use such technology to figure out where their comrades were.

For now, Purdue's conclusions would be rudimentary -- showing, essentially, that it is harder to figure out the pattern of the speakers in zero gravity than not. No one holds any illusions that the students' experiments have produced major contributions to science or technology. Instead, the program's value is in fostering inventiveness, said Donn G. Sickorez, the NASA official who coordinates the university program.

"What keeps us awake at night is this: Where are we going to get the next generation of engineers?" he said. "Well, here they are. These students have studied electronics and computers and engineering and project management, but this is the first time they have had to pull it all together. In the real macro view, this is about maintaining our edge in the global marketplace."

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