As NASA prepares the Discovery shuttle for blast-off, a group of University of Missouri-Rolla students are prepping themselves for their own flight mission set for July 21-30 in Houston. The eight-member team is one of 20 NASA has selected from more than 100 proposals to conduct reduced-gravity experiments this summer aboard the agency’s famous “Weightless Wonder” aircraft.
This isn’t the first time UMR students have been selected to participate in NASA’s Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program (RGSFP), a competition that allows undergraduate teams to design and construct an experiment to be conducted in microgravity. In 2003, UMR students boarded the KC-135 aircraft, unofficially known as the “vomit comet,” to weld aluminum and study its behavior with a goal of improving the speed of space construction.
This year’s team will seek to improve the reliability of the 2003 experiment aboard NASA’s C-9 aircraft, the military version of a McDonnell Douglas DC-9 jet airliner. The C-9 will fly in parabolic patterns to create a temporary environment of near weightlessness. As passengers on the plane, the UMR students will be accelerated quickly from about 26,000 feet to roughly 39,000 feet, and then free fall with the engines idled back down in a 45-degree arc over the Gulf of Mexico. The plane’s choreographed maneuvers will create between 40 and 50 periods of weightlessness each flight that will last 25 seconds at a time.
Following the flight, the team will analyze the experiment’s effectiveness, evaluate scientific findings, draw their conclusions, and provide the results to the RGSFP.
“We are very pleased that we are in a position to use our exploration mission to inspire these young scientists and engineers to study and understand their craft. The students tell us that they’ve never really put together a complete effort like this one, and that they gain useful skills by participating in the program. We are excited to be able to help them become better, more experienced scientists and engineers,” says Donn Sickorez, RGSFOP university affairs officer.
The eight UMR students who will conduct welding experiments for NASA, either on the ground or in the C-9, are:
— Mike Dancer of Poplar Bluff, Mo., a graduate student in aerospace engineering, ground crew.
— Jason Gallagher of Vichy, Mo., a senior in aerospace engineering, C-9 alternate flyer.
— David Harris of Cameron, Mo., a graduate student in aerospace engineering, ground crew.
— Caleb Keller of Lamar, Mo., a freshman in aerospace engineering, C-9 flyer.
— Sandeep Pedam of Chennai, India, a senior in aerospace engineering, team leader.
— Michelle Rader of Marshfield, Mo., a freshman in aerospace engineering, C-9 flyer.
— Abbie Stewart of Denton, Texas, a senior in aerospace engineering, C-9 flyer.
— Regan Tackett of West Plains, Mo., a graduate student in aerospace engineering, C-9 flyer.
The students are under the direction of Dr. Hank Pernicka, associate professor of aerospace engineering, and Dr. Hai-Lung Tsai, professor of mechanical engineering.