UT Students to Fly on NASA’s ‘Vomit Comet,’ Experience Zero-G

KNOXVILLE — For a few minutes this spring break, a select group of University of Tennessee engineering students will join an elite club — those who have experienced the feeling of zero-gravity.

Members of the UT Microgravity Team will travel to Houston next week to take part in a NASA program that allows undergraduate students the chance to conduct experiments in simulated zero-gravity conditions.

They’ll fly on board NASA’s C-9 airplane — also known as the “vomit comet” — that drops into a near-free fall to give those on board the feeling of no gravity. On the plane, they’ll conduct an experiment designed to help NASA build better nuclear reactors in space.

The UT team was one of 34 chosen from more than 300 teams applying to take part in the NASA program. This is the sixth consecutive year that a UT team has been selected.
“There’s not very many people that get to do this,” said UT senior Paul Schrader of Santa Cruz, Calif., a member of the flight crew for the experiment. “To see how well it works in this environment, that’s once in a lifetime.”

Their experiment is called SCOPE II, for Simulation for Confirmation of the Onset Correlation of Liquid Potassium Entrainment.
The team’s work is designed to understand the processes that influence, when liquid and air are both flowing through a tube, how often liquid droplets break off into the air in the tube. Reducing how often this occurs will be critical in the design of nuclear reactors for use in spaceflight.

“This work will be used later,” said junior Jerome Taylor of Memphis, Tenn. Taylor is working with the group this year in order to serve as a leader his senior year.

A total of eight students work on the project with four serving as part of the flight crew, along with one alternate, a ground crew member, and two juniors.

The flight crew will experience zero gravity as the plane flies in an enormous parabola over the Gulf of Mexico. As the plane’s nose dips down into a dive, the feeling of weightlessness begins and lasts approximately 25 seconds.

“I guess you have to be nervous,” said senior Michael Gay of Memphis, a flight crew member. “It’s nerve-wracking when you think about the physics of it.”

The group’s faculty adviser, Viatcheslav Naoumov, a professor of mechanical, aerospace and biomedical engineering, noted that the students’ experience goes far beyond what you might find in a typical classroom.

“Meeting with real scientific problems, the classes become your background,” said Naoumov. “It’s not school, it’s science.”

The team meets as part of a final senior project soursein the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace and Biomedical Engineering, and the students involved look to the experience as a major jumping-off point for their careers.

“We actually get to do everything from the ground up,” said flight crew member LaRuthie Holder, a senior from Atlanta, Ga. “It’s great experience.”

In addition to developing the experiment and preparing it for flight, the students also are required by NASA to take part in outreach activities in the community, specifically with middle and high school students to help develop their interest in science.

Ericka Maldonado, a senior and the team’s ground crew member, says the outreach activities are a rewarding part of the experience.

“Even when you talk to other college students about it, their eyes light up,” she said.
Other team members include senior Adam Bowen of Murfreesboro, Tenn., a flight crew member; senior Joe Willis of Chattanooga, Tenn., an alternate ground crew member; and junior Travelius Harris of Stanton, Tenn.

More information on the team and their experiment is available at http://web.utk.edu/~aeroutk.

Contacts:

Michael Gay (mgay@utk.edu, 865-595-9079)
Jay Mayfield (jay.mayfield@tennessee.edu, 865-974-9409)