David Harris now knows why they call NASA’s KC-135 aircraft the "vomit comet." The UMR mechanical engineering senior led a team of seven other UMR students and two Rolla Senior High School students on a trip aboard the KC-135 last summer to conduct welding experiments in near-zero gravity. The plane flies in parabolic patterns to create a temporary environment of near weightlessness.
"I had never gotten motion sickness before," says Harris, a senior in aerospace engineering, "but this was a completely different environment."
According the NASA officials working with the team, Harris’ reaction was not unusual and not the worst case of sickness they had ever seen. "They said, ‘At least you could walk yourself off the plane and didn’t have to be carried like some others we’ve seen’."
Last spring, the UMR students proposed their experiment to NASA, which chose UMR as one of 72 teams to fly an experiment aboard the vomit comet. This is the same aircraft that doubled as a command module for Tom Hanks and other cast members during the filming of Apollo 13. The team was originally scheduled to fly in April, but due to difficulties with the experiment they had to postpone until July.
"It was an amazing experience and we successfully completed our experiment," says Harris. The group welded eight different samples during two flights, each about two hours long. The team hopes their experiment will help identify ways to improve the speed of construction in space, and possibly aid NASA in its planning for building a future space station. Since the July flight, team members have been evaluating how their microgravity welds hold up in comparison to welds done on Earth. The group plans to finish its analysis by the end of the semester.
"Any advance in making construction in space easier is beneficial. If a means by which welding can be done easily and reliably can be developed, it would be very useful to future construction in space," says Hank Pernicka, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. Pernicka and Hai-Lung Tsai, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, are the team’s advisors.
Harris says the team may get to do this again next year because of this year’s success. If so, however, "I think I’ll retire my flying license and let someone else do the flying next year while I stay on the ground."
Working with Harris were UMR students Mike Dancer, Jason Gallagher and Kathy Gallagher, all of whom flew aboard the KC-135; ground crew member and alternate flyer Adam Gorrell; and ground crew members James Dymott, Regan Tacket and James Tinsley. Rolla High School students Karthik Balakrishnan and Andrea Krive both served on the ground crew.
(Originally published in the MSM-UMR Alumnus magazine, Winter 2003.)