July 13, 2020

Students’ ideas get lift from NASA Agency seeks plans for gravity research

Wealthy adventurers are lining up to pay tens of millions of dollars to take a ride into space, but a federal research program is allowing enterprising college students to get part of the space experience for free.

NASA is calling on college undergraduates interested in performing reduced-gravity experiments to submit proposals by Monday, Oct. 30.

The Weightless Wonder, NASA’s modified McDonnell Douglas DC-9 jet aircraft, will give participating students the feel of space as it performs a series of steep climbs and free-falls over the Gulf of Mexico, creating multiple periods of reduced gravity. Each parabolic maneuver produces about 25 seconds of weightlessness. By changing its flight path, the jet can produce periods of lunar gravity, which is one-sixth of Earth’s.

The Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston has given undergraduate teams the chance to conduct reduced-gravity experiments annually since 1995, but this will be the first time students can design experiments for lunar gravity.

NASA University Affairs Officer Dr. Donn Sickorez said the agency receives around 100 proposals annually, each representing a team of four undergraduates; 30 to 40 teams are accepted. There has never been a Maine team in the program. “We would love to have a team from Maine,” said Dr. Sickorez.

Annette Brickley, director of Bangor’s Challenger Learning Center of Maine, said microgravity experiments have led to remarkable discoveries with broad applications. For example, the importance of weight-bearing exercise in maintaining healthy bones became clear through studying the effects of weightlessness on astronauts.

Proposals will be evaluated for technical merit, safety and an outreach plan. The selected proposals will be announced Dec. 11 and flights will be April 19-28.

For more information about the Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program or submitting a proposal, contact Mat Bartley at: (281) 483-7185; or by e-mail at: mathew.bartley-1@nasa.gov; or visit: http://microgravityuniversity.jsc.nasa.gov

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