Video: Weightless classroom

By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 9/13/2006 9:39:16 AM ET 2006-09-13T13:39:16

As we floated in weightlessness, we squirted each other with water guns, gulped down candy hovering in midair and soared like Superman. We also studied accelerometers and weight scales, played catch with plush toys and showed how Newton's laws of motion held sway, even on a plunging Boeing 727 jet.

And we whooped and laughed. A lot.

Over the weekend, about 40 teachers (and a few journalists) from throughout the country converged on Cleveland's Hopkins International Airport for two zero-gravity parabolic flights, with the serious purpose of inspiring kids to study math and science. But I have to admit, we didn't look very serious while we were doing it. In fact, a lot of the teachers (and a few journalists) seemed more like kids bouncing off the walls of a flying playground.

Our weekend date with weightlessness was part of a nationwide "Weightless Flights of Discovery" program, sponsored by the aerospace company Northrop Grumman in cooperation with Zero Gravity Corp. In all, about 240 teachers are participating in the program, which wraps up in Washington later this month.

On one level, the exercise gives educators a chance to demonstrate the laws of physics in an environment like nothing on Earth: Objects in motion (like those plush toys) really stay in motion rather than falling to the floor. Surface tension turns those squirts of water into floating, glistening spheres. CD players and bicycle wheels go into a stable spin like gyroscopes.

"That's the way physics teaching is all the time," said Jeff Klein of Cleveland's Gilmour Academy. "We've got great toys."

On another level, the teachers' personal experience serves to inspire their kids to delve more deeply into science and math. "My students have been looking at me in awe for two weeks," said Nancy Morris of Riverside Elementary School in Cleveland.

In the days leading up to physics teacher Matt Gelon's weightless flight, his students at Barrington High School in Illinois could hardly think of anything else. "It's funny," Gelon said. "We try to settle on one topic, and we just have to let that go and just use this as a teachable moment."

How weightless flights work
Parabolic flights have been used for decades to train astronauts, provide an environment for microgravity research and facilitate the filming of space movies like "Apollo 13." But until recently, the flights were conducted only by official outfits such as NASA, the European Space Agency or the Russian Space Agency.

Two years ago, Zero Gravity received the Federal Aviation Administration's approval for private-sector parabolic flights, using specially outfitted cargo jets, and since then more than 1,500 fliers have paid Zero Gravity as much as $3,750 for the experience. Northrop Grumman picked up the tab for this summer's sponsored flights, and kicked in an extra $250 per teacher for classroom supplies.

Basically, parabolic flights are like riding a roller coaster in the air. "G-Force One" flies up to an altitude of 24,000 feet, then goes into a 45-degree climb to 34,000 feet. At the top of the ride, the jet curves gradually into a 30-degree descent — following the precise course for a controlled free fall. Such a maneuver can create about 25 seconds of weightlessness at a time, and the plane performs that maneuver over and over again.

Image: Parabolic flight
This chart shows the flight profile for the Zero Gravity parabolas. Each peak provides 25 seconds of weightlessness, but each valley makes you feel 1.8 times heavier than you do on the ground.

The experience cuts you loose from the surly bonds of Earth: Once you push off from the floor, you can swim through the air, turn flips like an acrobat or hang upside-down. Theoretically, you could throw a beanbag — or a teacher — from one end of the cabin to the other. However, because there are about two dozen other people floating around, you're likely to run into a sock-clad teammate before you reach the other side.

If you let loose of a chocolate-covered peanut, the candy just hangs in the air, waiting to be eaten. If you squeeze out a splurt of water from a bottle, the liquid shapes itself into a sphere. But don't squeeze it out too quickly: Otherwise, it splashes onto the ceiling, then drips back onto your face once gravity returns.

Fighting the upchuck factor
There's a well-known downside, of course. Zero-G plays tricks with your sense of orientation, particularly during the flip side of the experience, when you feel as much as 1.8 times normal gravity. It's not for nothing that NASA's weightlessness plane has been nicknamed "the Vomit Comet."

To minimize the risk of inducing motion sickness, G-Force One builds up to zero-G gradually, starting out with one round of one-third gravity ("Martian gravity"), then a few rounds of one-sixth gravity ("lunar"), then about 10 rounds of full weightlessness. In contrast, NASA's fliers go through about 40 parabolas. Studies have indicated that the vast majority of fliers can weather 15 parabolas without getting sick.

Noah McMahon, Zero Gravity's chief marketing officer, repeatedly reassured the teachers during a preflight briefing. "It's much more like a yoga class than a roller coaster," he said.

For extra insurance, Zero Gravity recommends taking motion-sickness medication, such as Dramamine or scopolamine. And just in case, Zero Gravity's coaches make sure everyone gets an airsick bag.

I stuck a scopolamine patch behind my ear and the airsick bag in my pocket for Saturday morning's flight. Strangely enough, I felt great during the parabolas — but a little green around the gills afterward, during the level flight back to Cleveland. I didn't have to use the bag myself, although at least one of the teachers aboard used his.

Celebration time
To judge by the whoops and hollers heard during the zero-G parabolas, most of the teachers were tickled by the experience. "It's really fun to actually experience it rather than watch it on TV," Cindy Hasselbring of Milan High School in Michigan said after the last parabola was flown.

Barrington High's Matt Gelon said the experience could yield educational dividends for years to come.

"As a teacher, you’re always looking for hooks — something that will get students really interested in what you’re talking about," he said. "Now I’ve got about 15 video clips and demonstrations that we have demonstrated up in zero-G that, once I put 'em on the screen — I got 'em. I can teach 'em anything I want at that point."

Those are just the sorts of reactions that Northrop Grumman hoped to inspire with the program, said Art Stephenson, the company's vice president of space exploration systems.

"We look forward to bringing a workforce forward that's excited about and wants to work in technical fields — like space," he said. "Space happens to be one that's immediately of interest to young people."

If those 240 teachers can inspire, say, 40 students each in the course of a year, that works out to close to 10,000 students — and even more as the teachers pass on their experience to future classes.

"People ask us, 'Why don't you fly students?'" Stephenson said. "Well, the teachers are the ones who touch the students, and we think that multiplier effect is what it's all about."

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