It was a cool, overcast March morning high above the Gulf of Mexico,
and Noel Nutting and Dan Barnett, senior mechanical engineering
majors at UVM, were experiencing the adrenaline rush of big adventure.
The pair was moments away from achieving weightlessness aboard
NASAs KC-135A aircraft, colorfully (and accurately) nicknamed
The Vomit Comet, and they had to concentrate to control the
nervous excitement that seemed to fill them with a jumpy energy.
The plane was at thirty-thousand feet and climbing steeply. Nutting
and Barnett were among two dozen college students, journalists
and NASA administrators all participants in NASAs Reduced Gravity
Student Flight Opportunities Program plastered to the padded
floor of the aircraft, held there by two gs worth of downward
force that made their limbs feel like dead weights. Then it happened:
the downward force lessened, then lessened more, until finally
there was nothing holding them down. They popped up off the floor
and floated about the cabin as if moving through very thin water.
Barnett and Nutting, like all the students onboard, had an experiment
to monitor, but the first moments of weightlessness were so strange
and wonderful that it was near impossible to concentrate on anything
else. Sporting huge grins, the pair bounced off the ceiling and
turned somersaults. After twenty seconds of mid-air frolic, a
NASA spotter suddenly yelled Feet down!, and everyone got to
the floor, fast; the zero-gravity period ended in seconds, and
anyone caught on the planes ceiling faced a hard fall if they
didnt get down. A minute later, after another two-g climb, everyone
was floating again, whooping and laughing as they kicked and twisted
For Barnett and Nutting and their UVM teammates, the month and
a half leading up to this moment had been intense and hectic,
and the weightlessness seemed to bring with it an immense relief.
Barnett, suspended between the planes floor and ceiling, summed
up the experience in a succinct exclamation: This is awesome!
A few moments of awesomeness in the skies above NASAs Houston
headquarters were the final, fleeting rewards for a great deal
of hard work by Nutting, Barnett, and fellow mechanical engineering
seniors Dan Cheung and Megan Carroll.
The road to Houston began last fall with a special projects course
taught by Tony Keller, associate professor of mechanical engineering,
and Mark Miller, a doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering.
Miller had received a $34,000 NASA grant in 1997 to study the
effects of weightlessness on fruit flies, part of his research
on the links between metabolism and aging. Weightlessness would
be achieved by launching the flies along with a host of complex
monitoring equipment in a Nike-Orion sounding rocket fired at
NASAs Wallops Island facility in Virginia. (The launch is slated
for July.) The experiment would be transported in the rockets
nose cone and would subject the flies drosophila melanogaster
to about five minutes of weightlessness before falling back
to Earth. Miller, consequently, needed to design a strong, well-organized
experiment to house the flies and record their activity in zero-gravity
a perfect project, he concluded, for undergraduate engineers.
Miller and Keller offered a special projects course for senior
engineering majors in the fall of 1997 to design the experiment,
and continued the course for a new crop of seniors including
Nutting, Carroll, Barnett and Cheung last fall. Midway through
the semester, Keller urged the students to submit a proposal for
the yet-to-be-completed experiment to NASAs competitive Reduced
Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program, a two-week program
that lets teams of undergraduates from colleges around the country
conduct scientific experiments in zero-gravity aboard the KC-135A.
The proposal was accepted in late December for the March program,
which meant that the ante for the project had been upped considerably:
not only did the students have to complete the design of the experiment,
but they also had to build it from scratch, all in a scant six
That meant creating enclosures for the flies, devising complex
electronics to monitor the flies movements and store the data,
adding heating and cooling systems to ensure a consistent environment,
rigging up lighting and providing an on-board power supply all
of which had to fit in the very vertical, very narrow space of
a nose cone, and be able to withstand the tremendous g-forces
of a rocket launch. The students returned for the spring semester
and dove into the project.
The ten students in the special projects class hurriedly completed
the design work, and Nutting, Barnett, Cheung and Carroll, with
plenty of help from Miller, Keller and other students in the class,
oversaw the fabrication of the experiment in the departments
design shop. They hired a Williston company, SolutioNet, to design
some of the complex electronic components, and worked round-the-clock
to complete the project in the final days before leaving for Houston.
There were too many anxious moments to count, said Nutting,
of Essex Junction, Vt., recalling the race to finish the project.
We hardly slept or ate that last week we were in the shop constantly.
Cheung, from Roslyn Heights, N.Y., said the process was slowed
by time-consuming but essential trial-and-error. The design
for the fly chambers was always changing, he said. Youd spend
ten hours working in the shop only to realize that what youd
just made wouldnt work and that it had to be completely redesigned.
Final approval on design and fabrication had to come from Keller,
whom Carroll, of Vineyard Haven, Mass., credited with the rockets
extremely well-made elegance. Hes a total perfectionist, she
said. One of his rules was, No duct tape.
By the end of the first week of March, days before the start of
the two-week NASA program, the essential structure of the experiment
a four-foot-tall, multi-level tower of CNCed aluminum and Plexiglas
had been completed, and the students were tending vials of newly
hatched fruit flies. But the towers costly and complex electronics,
which Miller would bring with him to Houston several days after
the students arrived, had yet to be installed and tested; the
heating and cooling systems were not yet functioning; lighting
had yet to be added; and trial runs had to happen before the tower
was hoisted into the aircraft for its maiden voyage.
On March 6, the students carefully packed the tower sans duct
tape in the back of a rented van and prepared for the two-day
drive to Texas. They were heading for Houston at last, but all
systems were definitely not go.
NASAs Ellington Field, located a few miles north of the Johnson
Space Center, sits amid the vast suburban sprawl of southeast
Houston. Nimble T-38 training jets perform improbable maneuvers
above the field, filling the skies over subdivisions with the
whine of maxed-out engines.
Ellingtons dominant feature, Building 990, is a cavernous hangar
used for aircraft storage and maintenance, and was the destination
of the UVM foursome, who rolled in on schedule on March 8. The
students unloaded the tower, as well as an assortment of tools
and gear, and set up shop on a work table in the middle of the
bustling hangar, which would be ground zero for twenty-two undergraduate
teams for the next two weeks.
The students settled into their rooms at a nearby motel and awaited
the arrival of Miller and Keller. Each of the rooms was a study
in contrasts: typical spring break accoutrements like backpacks,
sandals and coolers mingled with tool kits, volt meters, spools
of wire and bits of electronics. In one of the rooms, glass vials
teeming with fruit flies covered the bathroom countertop, while
drosophila that had escaped their confines buzzed lazily above
the sink or crawled amid the bristles of scattered toothbrushes.
Evenings that first week were spent noshing Tex-Mex at a nearby
Taco Cabana restaurant, duking it out at a local go-kart track
or hanging out at the motel watching the NCAA basketball tournament
Days, though, were devoted to working on the tower and running
a gauntlet of NASA activities. There was an exhausting, all-day
KC-135A safety training class, which included detailed instructions
in the use of airsickness bags (Stuff floats up there, guys,
and then it lands, and then its a big mess, one instructor cautioned,
so really clamp those bags tight to your face) and culminated
with a session in a hypobaric chamber, a device that produces
the dizzying and disorienting effects of being without supplemental
oxygen at twenty-five thousand feet. There were tours of the Johnson
Space Center, barbecue shindigs and impassioned talks by astronauts,
who did their best to convince students that manned space flight,
far from being a Cold War holdover, will be a key component of
scientific exploration in the next century.
At the end of the first week, the UVM experiment had to pass a
Test Readiness Review (TRR), a rite-of-passage conducted by zero-gravity
program administrators and KC pilots who pronounced experiments
fit or unfit to fly. There was a crackle of nervous tension
in the Ellington hangar as the officials moved from project to
project, asking questions and taking notes.
Cheung, said Nutting. You nervous?
Naw, said Cheung, who would lead UVMs presentation. Its no
Yeah, said Nutting, relaxing. We know this thing by heart.
The reviewers finally circled the UVM project, and Cheung gave
them an overview of the experiment and how it was constructed.
Most of the reviewers studied the tower, nodding slowly, and a
couple of them raised safety questions about exposed wingnuts
and the sharp corners of an auxiliary power supply. After assurances
by the students that the protrusions would be padded, the tower
was approved, and everyone breathed a little easier.
When the TRRs were complete, John Yaniec, test director for the
KC-135A and lead reviewer, was surprised to learn the UVM students
had built the project themselves he thought they had borrowed
a sophisticated piece of gear from somewhere to run their fruit
fly experiment. This is typical of the kind of hardware we see
from the NASA researchers, Yaniec said, impressed. [The KC-135A
flight] will be a great way for them to fine-tune the experiment
and ensure a better chance of success with the Nike-Orion launch.
Then there was the matter of who would fly when. The program is
designed so that each experiment flies twice, accompanied by two
students per flight. UVM only had three flyers, however Carroll,
in a preliminary NASA physical exam, had mentioned a bout of exercise-induced
asthma that she experienced in high school, and program officials,
despite repeated pleas from the students, refused to let her fly
as a result which meant one student could fly twice. Nutting
bowed out, saying one flight would probably be enough, so Barnett
and Cheung settled the matter one night over dinner with a rock-scissors-paper
face-off, best two-out-of-three. They waved their fists over a
plate of Cajun crab legs: Barnetts paper covered Cheungs rock,
and his scissors cut Cheungs paper. Barnett, of Asbury, N.J.,
would fly twice.
Barnetts succinct exclamation: Awesome!
Miller arrived in Houston near the end of the first week, and
the tower was relocated from Ellington to the motel so that he
could spend most of his waking hours laboring over it. The amiable
Miller, 29, an Iowa native with an aerospace engineering degree
from the University of Colorado, took up residence on the floor
of his motel room and painstakingly installed the experiments
missing electronics. He fiddled with the towers problematic heating
and cooling system, designed to keep the flies at a consistent
25 degrees C. He sat and stared at the tower, the culmination,
to date, of his doctoral work, then tinkered with it some more.
Still it refused to work properly.
By the end of the weekend the strain of all the fine-tuning, and
the painful slowness with which progress was achieved, had begun
to wear on the group. Miller and the students were spending hours
each day fiddling with the towers numerous details, and the energy
that had buoyed them earlier in the week had dwindled markedly.
There were moments when the students would simply sit and stare
silently at the tower, the unspoken worry being that they might
have to fly with a malfunctioning experiment. Miller, surrounded
by an array of electronic gadgets, continued to fine-tune, even
when a system appeared to at last be working properly. Mark can
tinker forever, Carroll muttered at one point, rolling her eyes.
It was with great relief that the students packed the van early
the second week for a two-day respite on the broad beaches near
Corpus Christi, three hours south of Houston.
The students arrived back in Houston on Wednesday, tanned, rested,
and ready for the final push that would culminate in the first
of two flights on Friday morning. Miller, in their absence, had
managed to tweak the towers electronics sufficiently so that
all systems appeared ready to go. After another late night of
jiggering the final details, the tower, along with a half-dozen
other student experiments, was finally loaded aboard the KC-135A
on Thursday in preparation for its flight the following day. There
was nothing left to do but load the tiny fruit flies into their
trays and hope for good flying weather.
But the skies over Ellington Friday morning were dark and menacing;
a massive bank of slow-moving thunderstorms was stalled over the
region. KC-135A pilots conferred while the mornings student fliers,
decked out in olive drab NASA flight suits, crowded into an Ellington
conference room, anxiously awaiting the verdict. When it came,
it was terse and disappointing: no flight today. That meant that,
weather permitting, there would be two flights on Saturday. No
one wanted to speculate what might happen if the weather was bad
again Saturday that students from seven schools, including UVM,
might have to go home without flying. Lets assume well get
everybody up tomorrow, the pilots kept saying.
But the capricious weather gods of East Texas smiled: Saturday
dawned cool and breezy with a high overcast, which meant the days
flights would go as planned. At 9:30 a.m. Barnett and Nutting,
along with a couple hundred fruit flies stowed in the tower, took
off aboard the KC-135A while the rest of the team watched a live
video feed of the flight amid the high-tech clutter of Building
After a short trip out over the Gulf of Mexico, Nutting, Barnett
and a dozen other students checked their experiments most were
bolted to the floor of the airplane one last time and prepared
for weightlessness. The aircraft, a converted tanker similar to
a commercial Boeing 707, creates zero-gravity in the open, padded
cabin by flying a series of steep, rolling arcs between twenty-five
thousand and thirty-five thousand feet; zero-g conditions exist
for about twenty seconds at the top of each arc before the airplane
plunges downward and begins another stomach-wrenching two-g climb.
Each two-and-a-half-hour flight includes forty zero-g arcs, as
well as an arc that simulates lunar gravity and one that simulates
The team met the flyers on the tarmac when the plane landed. Barnett,
all smiles, looked fresh and ready to go up again, but Nutting
looked a bit pale after a couple bouts of motion sickness. (Nausea
is a problem that, despite widespread use of motion-sickness medication,
affects about half the people who fly the KC-135A.) It was a
little rough on the old tummy, Nutting said, walking gingerly
toward the hangar. But it was still definitely worth it its
the wildest rollercoaster ride Ive ever been on.
A couple hours later, after a quick lunch and yet more onboard
tinkering with the experiment it had run too cool during the
morning flight, possibly limiting the flies activity Barnett
and Cheung took off on UVMs second weightless adventure. Twenty
minutes or so into the flight they were given the okay to leave
their seats and prepare for the first series of arcs. They checked
the experiments temperature, which the between-flight tinkering
seemed to have fixed. One minute! the spotter called out, preparing
the fliers for the climb. The climb topped out and the zero-g
period began, and Cheung whooped as he began floating What an
amazing feeling! he exclaimed.
Cheung and Barnett spent the first several arcs explaining the
experiment for a NASA videographer as they floated gracefully
above the tower, then engaged in a few zero-g high jinks, like
using a squirt bottle to shoot wobbly little blobs of water across
the cabin into each others mouths. This is a weird sensation!
Cheung said a few arcs later, before he, like Nutting, succumbed
to motion sickness, while Barnett continued to cavort, arc after
The teams final dinner together in Houston wound down as the
students prepared to leave for Vermont that evening, but there
was one more piece of business: figuring out who won the pool
for guessing what arc each flyer would get sick on. After a quick
tally, the winners were Keller and, appropriately, Barnett, whose
double-flight exploits had earned him the title Iron Dan.
Awesome! Barnett exclaimed as his teammates ponied up. The
flights were cool, but this really makes it worthwhile.
Back in Vermont, Miller described his initial examination of the
experiments data as very encouraging. Acceleration and temperature
data of the second flight provided him with an accurate picture
of the flies environment, and data gathered using infrared beams
indicated that the flies were much more active when they were
weightless. Among the normal flies, there was a huge jump in
activity the females had an 800 percent increase, and the males
had almost 400 percent, Miller said. That second flight had
a temperature spike, though, where the temperature inside the
tower went from 23 degrees C to 26 degrees C. We need to get some
baseline data at 26 degrees C to determine how much of the flies
activity was due to zero-gravity and how much was due to the temperature
increase. Miller expects to have all the data analyzed by the
end of the summer.
By that time, the tower stocked with new generations of pioneering
drosophila will have been weightless two more times. The Nike-Orion
sounding rocket launch is scheduled for mid-July, and Nutting
and Cheung are helping Miller prepare the tower. In August, another
quartet of UVM students will accompany the tower aboard the KC-135A
as part of the Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program.
In the near future, Miller envisions the tower flying aboard the space shuttle, and a bit further down the road hed like to see it aboard the International Space Station for a prolonged period of zero-gravity all achieved with the help of UVM undergraduates. The idea is to keep this moving forward as a space flight experiment, using it for ground-based research, establishing a lot of baseline data, then using that to go after bigger programs like the shuttle and the space station, he said. Id like to see it continue to be an undergraduate project. This is the kind of project that really gets students interested in engineering you get so much confidence by flying something that youve designed and built yourself. I think what the students have accomplished so far has been pretty impressive, so why not keep going with a good thing?