NASA’s Weightless Wonder

Engineering students take a ‘magical and mind-boggling’ ride on NASA’s weightless wonder.

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UM News

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (August 29, 2014) — About an hour into the flight, Nicolas Rongione knew he was in for the ride of his life—a free-floating trip that defied the laws of Newton.

With arms and legs flailing, and no control over his body’s orientation, the University of Miami senior must have felt a lot like Alan Shepard some 53 years ago when he blasted off from Cape Canaveral aboard a Freedom 7 capsule to become the first American in space.

But unlike Shepard and other astronauts, Rongione didn’t need to pierce the boundaries of Earth’s atmosphere to experience weightlessness. Instead, he and four of his College of Engineering classmates took off in a modified Boeing 727 from Ellington Field in Houston, Texas, last month, unbuckled their seatbelts, and floated aimlessly at the peak of the aircraft’s first parabolic maneuver—a free-fall flight path that simulates zero gravity.

“Magical and mind-boggling” is how Rongione described the feeling. “Something hit my eye during one of the maneuvers,” he recalled, “and then I saw the culprit—a pencil floating with an eerie steadiness beside me.”

Though weightlessness lasted for a mere 20 seconds, the NASA pilots who flew the aptly nicknamed Weightless Wonder repeated a series of 30 parabolic maneuvers to draw out the experience. Better than a ride on Mamba, a steel hyper roller coaster at Worlds of Fun in Kansas City, is how Benton Patterson described it.

The students’ encounter with zero-gravity was much more than a thrill ride; they floated in the name of science. As participants in NASA’s Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program, the UM contingent tested the effects of reduced gravity on nano-particle dispersion, with the goal of developing high-strength composite materials that could be used to build stronger aircraft or even a better blender.

“Only part of the fabrication process is conducted in microgravity,” said Benton Patterson, a mechanical and aerospace engineering major. “We had to ship the samples back to the Composite Materials Lab in Miami to finish the process and be tested. But based on our observations during microgravity, the results are promising.”

So promising that NASA personnel at the Johnson Space Center encouraged the UM team to submit their experiment for a possible flight to the International Space Station for further testing.

Final test results from the NASA flight taken in July are expected in about two months, according to Landon Grace, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, who advised the five-member team, which also includes Mark Agate, Felipe Gheiman, and Stephen Markus.

For Rongione, the zero-G flight aboard NASA’s Weightless Wonder could be a precursor to a far-flung journey to another star.

“I dream of helping humanity achieve its first interstellar probe, capable of reaching and transmitting first-hand data back from nearby stars,” he said. “I choose not to close my eyes to possibilities, but I know that no matter where opportunities take me, I will be spending my efforts to contribute to enlightenment of humanity into the final frontier.”

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Altered state: Ben Patterson, left, and Felipe Gheiman defy gravity aboard NASA's Weightless Wonder while keeping a close eye on their experiment.

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