The Austin Space Aces are now at Johnson Space Center in Houston to participate in NASA’s simulated reduced gravity program. The team led by ACC students is one of 14 college teams across the country – including Yale University, Purdue University, and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University – selected to take part in this year’s “Microgravity University,” in which students perform science experiments aboard a modified Boeing 727 aircraft that climbs and dips to produce periods of weightlessness.
This is the third ACC team to win one of the coveted spots in NASA’s Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities program. Like the ACC teams before them in 2002 and 2007, the current Austin Space Aces have spent the better part of a year working on their experiment. The Aces aim to address muscle atrophy and bone deterioration problems resulting from lack of gravity in space. “I am very anxious to see our experiment in action,” says Billy Baccam, a sophomore engineering student. “The fact that I’ll be floating is pretty awesome, too!”
Members of the Austin Space Aces with their experimental device.
From left, Mark Prado, Christina Vasquez, Daniel Acosta,
Billy Baccam, and Dustin Blymer. (ACC Photo)
The experiment is performed with software and a handmade device that uses a vacuum pump to simulate free weights. Astronauts could use the software to specify a certain weight – 40 pounds, for example – to work muscles even in zero gravity.
“I believe this is a critical step along the path that will lead us to sustained human space flight and eventual stellar colonization,” says ACC engineering student Chad Kassem.
The Austin Space Aces – which include a few students from local universities – are spending several days learning about NASA, working with aeronautical experts, and undergoing physical training for their flights on June 22 and 23.
The aircraft typically flies about 30 parabolic maneuvers over the Gulf of Mexico. Each time the plane descends toward Earth, there are about 25 seconds of microgravity, during which the students will become weightless and conduct their experiments. Team leader Christina Vasquez, who is a student at both ACC and Texas State University-San Marcos, says while she won’t take the anti-nausea medication offered by NASA, she’s not especially thrilled about getting on the aircraft infamously known as the “Vomit Comet.”
“I was part of ACC’s 2007 NASA flight team, and I did feel sick,” the electrical engineering student admits. “I don’t want to fly, but I have to test the experiment. At any rate, getting the most accurate data is my main concern – not getting sick.”
Among the eight members of the Austin Space Aces, five students are part of the flight crew while the rest provide support. The flight crew will split into two groups and fly on consecutive days – the culmination of many months of hard work.
“We started the planning for this at the beginning of the fall 2009 semester,” says Dr. John Underwood, an ACC physics professor who serves as the group’s advisor. “We spent a couple of months preparing our proposal and found out in December that NASA selected us for this year’s program. Ever since, the team has been constructing and perfecting our device and software.”
Underwood also oversaw the two previous ACC teams.
“This is one of the most fun things I do,” he says. “It’s a highly competitive program, so this shows what talented and bright students we have here at ACC. All of our past participants have gone on to study engineering, physics, or related fields at major colleges and universities, and I know our current team will be very successful, too.”
Dustin Blymer and Billy Baccam work on the device.
NASA says those selected for the program are the scientific leaders of tomorrow.
“Today’s students will be the ones going to the moon and beyond to live, explore, and work,” says Douglas Goforth, the Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program manager at Johnson Space Center. “This project gives them a head start in preparing for those future ventures.”
But for now, the Austin Space Aces aren’t thinking about anything beyond their fast-approaching flights.
“I’m excited to finally conduct our experiment,” says Baccam. “At the same time, I’m a little nervous. But we’ve been working on this for some time now, so we’re definitely ready.”
For a truly inspiring and gratifying video on this program, visit this site.