I first heard about NASA’s Microgravity University two years ago in the summer of ‘09.The program allows students to design a reduced gravity experiment to be flown on NASA’s Weightless Wonder (aka Vomit Comet). I thought to myself, “Surely, the University of Illinois has a team that competes in the program.” To my surprise, I found out the University hasn’t been represented in the program for several years now.
The original Illinois microgravity group, called the Float’n Illini, has performed numerous experiments in biology, chemistry, and physics in zero gravity. The group’s last experiment proposal dealt withCerianthus membranaceus, also known as the brown tube anemone.Unfortunately, it does not seem that the proposal was accepted, most likely because the group could not find a connection between their suggested proposal and current NASA interests.
However, the Float’n Illini’s last proposal got me thinking. The group wanted to study C. membranaceus because they hypothesized that the anemone’s orientation in a gravitation field strongly influenced its behavior. I remembered reading that plant parasitic nematodes are thought to use geotaxis to find plants, the idea being that plants are on the surface of the Earth so these nematodes would have a higher chance of finding host plants by moving up. But how would one connect this to NASA’s goal of deep space exploration?
Well, if humans are ever to colonize the Moon or Mars, we will undoubtedly have to build giant space greenhouses. The most efficient way to do this would be to design a sort of closed system (not closed in the thermodynamic sense) in which elements cycle through an artificial ecosystem. This would limit costly resupply missions from Earth and allow the space colonies’ survival to be independent from Earth. One of the biggest justifications regarding human space travel is that it allows the continuation of Homo sapiens in the event of an Earth-wide disaster. Space colonists cannot continue for too long without an independent life support system so designing a closed system makes sense.
So what design parameters does such a system imply? Well, you probably would not want to sterilize the soil you are taking up to space as many of the microorganisms living there can help in the breakdown of wastes and help many plants in absorbing key nutrients. This could mean that plant parasitic nematodes could hitch a ride to a space colony. These nematodes cause billions of dollars in crop damage in the United States alone. The damage up in space might be more fatal; parasitic nematodes could threaten the survival of colonists by attacking the only source of food and replenishable air.
I’ve argued with myself about the probability of such an event…indeed, such an event is a low probability event, but the associated risk is very high. In any case, the justification for space research was there and studying these nematodes’ behavior in zero gravity might reveal some important information that could be used back on Earth (i.e. what other environmental cues influence the worms’ behavior).
The next step in the proposal process was finding members for the resurrected Float’n Illini and a couple of mentors. Dr. James Dalling, the current director of the Integrative Biology Honors program, agreed to volunteer his time and be a mentor. Dr. Soon-Jo Chung from the Department of Aerospace Engineering agreed to be the mentor for the engineers. Finding students for the project was actually a very difficult task. I ended up recruiting a lot my residents for the project (I was a resident advisor at Snyder Hall) and finding a couple of random folks through mass e-mails.
So great, we had a team. Now it was time to write a proposal. I was disappointed by my leadership skills with the proposal writing. Very little work seemed to be accomplished at the Engineering meetings.In fact, we did not have a final design until a day before the proposal was to be turned in. Needless to say, December came around and we found out that our proposal was rejected. Shucks, better luck next year I thought.
Fortunately, Space Grant was funding an additional flight week for Universities associated with their respective states’ Space Grant associations. The University of Illinois happens to lead our state’s Space Grant so we definitely qualified. We were required to write a new proposal. This proposal was taken much more seriously by the group. Certain leadership positions were changed and progress resulted. Initially, I feared for the new proposal since one of the engineer’s CADDing abilities seemed to have been overstated.Luckily, someone else was able to pull through. We spent an all-nighter writing and reworking the proposal. I kept working into the day (yes, I skipped class), submitted the proposal nearly last minute, and went to sleep. The next day I went to Kinko’s and got a printed copy of the proposal bound and sent off to Houston. We could only hope, pray, and wait from that point on.
March came along and we found out that the proposal was accepted! I was almost hoping that we would not get accepted as I was very busy already that spring semester, but once I found out that the proposal was accepted, I knew it’d be great if the University of Illinois was represented down in Houston. The Float’n Illini received funding from the College of Engineering and we built our experimental apparatus, essentially a giant centrifuge meant to replicate Lunar and Martian conditions.
As part of the process, our group had to complete a Test Equipment Data Package (TEDP) that was meant to prove that our experiment would not be a hazard on the plane. The most challenging aspect of the report was the structural analysis…which we did not finish until the day before our flight day. The structural aspect was definitely underestimated, but that’s a lesson learned for next year’s group.
Arriving to Houston was an adventure in itself. Finding the cheapest way of getting to Houston from Los Angeles meant leaving at 6pm, sleeping in Denver International, and ending up at Houston at about 8am. The entire week and half at Houston was a blur.
Our team of five was cramped up into one hotel room. The conditions were probably not unlike what current astronauts face in terms of personal space limitations. Tensions between members rose many times, but in the end, we all came to Houston to finish the experiment. A couple days before the first flight date, our nematodes arrived…dead. We had two species, Caenorhabditis elegans andPratylenchus penetrans. C. elegans acted as our control species andP. penetrans was our plant parasitic species. I found it ridiculous thatC. elegans was able to survive the disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia, but could not survive the Houston heat.I can’t help but wonder why Houston is America’s fourth largest city.Luckily, the Johnson Space Center was able to provide us with new nematodes.
Then came flight day (finally!). We were all issued flight suits as part of our Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Wearing a real flight suit was cool by itself, but NASA also gave us Velcro name-tags that we were able to attach to our suits (thank you American tax-payer). We got to keep the name-tags, but not the flight suits. Regardless, they made for pretty sweet souvenirs.
With the gold letters and NASA emblem sparkling in the Houston sun, we made our way to the briefing room. We got to watch a NASA motion sickness video and its attempt at humor. The anti-motion sickness meds came next, but because I was the only one old enough in our group to drive a rental car, I could not take the medications.What happened next is totally predictable.
We made our way to the aircraft. The flight team consisted of Rasheed, Ashley (our NASA mentor), and myself. What seemed like five minutes into the flight, we reached our “cruising altitude” of 10,000 feet. After getting a couple minutes to set up our experiments, the plane started climbing upward. We felt two times the force of Earth’s gravity as the plane climbed the sky. And then everything just started floating. At last, I finally knew how it feels like to be an astronaut.
The flight crew insisted we use the first two parabolas to get used to the new environment. But I came here to do science! I started our experiment on the first parabola. The experiment was largely automated so I was only required to flick a few switches. The second parabola came and went. It was at the third parabola that I felt safe enough to move around in. I floated up effortlessly towards the plane’s ceiling. Every small movement resulted in a large response. Touching anything would almost certainly send you flying off in the opposite direction.
Fourteen parabolas in and I start our centrifuge to start simulating Martian conditions. Another fourteen parabolas fly by and we start our Lunar and Martian parabolas. My body did not like that. Having been used to a 2G-0G-2G sequence, my body became very confused when we hit 0.16 G’s and not 0 G’s as it expected. I don’t know why the human brain thinks it’s a good idea to vomit when it is disoriented, but I do know that I lost my breakfast that day and that it tasted much better coming in than when it came out.
I nearly survived the entire flight without expelling my innards’ holdings, but I guess the experience would not have been complete without it. After all, the plane is called the vomit comet. The flight went by amazingly fast. I’m glad that I have made some worthwhile memories on this trip and I hope University of Illinois students continue representing the University down in Houston with the Reduced Gravity Office.
IBH students travel the world, publish research papers, and do all sorts of amazing things