They say space is the final frontier, and in the imagination of the average person — even the average Yalie — it is a destination as distant and surreal as the most fantastic dream. This summer, though, five Yale physics majors had a taste of the majesty and grandeur of spaceflight, after they won clearance from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to conduct a science experiment in a micro-gravity environment, essentially simulating the conditions of space travel for a precious few minutes in a free-falling airplane.
“You look out the window, and the horizon is just completely opposite what you’d expect,” Stephen Fedele ’07 said of the experience. “The horizon should never look like that.”
Though one member of the five-person team — which also included Ning Liang ’07, Ruth Toner ’07, Anthony Garvan ’06 and team coordinator Ben Jorns ’07 — lost his lunch during the flight, the visceral thrill of weightlessness was the exhilarating reward for a year-long scientific odyssey of late nights, complex physics, and more than a few bumps in the road.
The students were the first Yalies to participate in NASA’s Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities program, which recruits undergraduates to conduct science experiments in a micro-gravity environment launched from the Houston NASA base. The program is highly selective, admitting fewer than 30 groups from a pool of over 500 applicants nationwide.
Yet as they themselves readily admit, the Yalies’ experiment wasn’t quite as high-octane as those put forth by technical and engineering students from other schools.
“Everyone had their experiments shipped in these massive wooden crates, while ours was boxed in cardboard and tied with string,” Toner said.
The experiment itself involved examining the ion discharge of a droplet of ethylene glycol when passed through an electric field. In a micro-gravity environment, the droplet should attain a more spherical shape than on Earth. Micro-gravity should also permit a larger droplet to form, thus reducing the impact of evaporation.
“If you’ve ever seen the footage of astronauts drinking Gatorade, and you see the massive globs of fluid, that’s the sort of advantage we were looking for,” Toner said.
The next several months were dominated by late-night revisions of the team’s 35-page application, as well as its safety and security document, which ended up being twice as long as the proposal itself.
“What would happen if a human-sized object moving at X velocity struck the experiment here, here and here? We had to account for all of that,” Liang said.
The Yalies’ perseverance paid off once their proposal was accepted by NASA. They then proceeded to secure funding from Yale before beginning work on the actual experiment. The entire project, budgeted at about $2,000 and about the size of a small refrigerator, eventually found a home aboard the micro-gravity simulator airplane.
“It looked like your standard jumbo jet, except that all the seats were removed, and all the walls were padded inside,” Jorns said.
The flight itself was a roller-coaster, alternating between bursts of extreme gravitational forces and total weightlessness about 30 times.
“The G-forces were the really disorienting part,” Liang said. “One girl on another team started vomiting violently and had to be restrained.”
The team experienced weightlessness in only about 30-second bursts, during which they had to not only get used to the foreign sensation, but also conduct their experiment.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to actually measure any data from the droplet phenomenon, since the experiment started leaking mid-flight,” Toner said. “The upside was that we just got to float there for the next 20 drops.”
Regardless, members of the newly christened Yale Drop Team said they hope to spend time this year reaching out a little closer to home, helping students at local middle and high schools conduct physics experiments. Of course, there is one other thing on their minds.
“We’re definitely going to apply for the NASA program again this year,” Jorns said. “It was simply the most amazing experience.”