Yalies fight vomit on zero gravity flight

At NASA’s Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program, Joe O’Rourke ’12 will spend time in a zero gravity simulator, experience a low pressure chamber and research the effects of outer space on them solidification of fluids.
At NASA’s Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program, Joe O’Rourke ’12 will spend time in a zero gravity simulator, experience a low pressure chamber and research the effects of outer space on them solidification of fluids. Photo by Joy Chen.

This June, the Yale Drop Team will experience what it is like to be in outer space.

Flying in one of NASA’s infamous “Vomit Comets,” aircraft which simulate zero-gravity conditions, team president Joe O’Rourke ’12 will be a third-year participant in the aeronautics and space agency’s Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program. The program is designed to provide undergraduates with the chance to design and run an experiment in little to no gravity. The Yale team will experiment with fluid solidification and O’Rourke said he hopes to maintain the team’s perfect no-vomit record.

In late October 2010, the team submitted a 60-page single-spaced project proposal for NASA evaluation detailing every detail of the experiment they planned to conduct on the zero-

Joe O'Rourke
Joe O'Rourke
Joe O'Rourke

gravity flight. The application process is extremely competitive, O’Rourke said, with only 14 teams selected out of the 60 to 80 teams that usually apply. Every year the Yale Drop Team has applied it has successfully had at least one team selected.

“You really have to be on top of your game to apply,” O’Rourke said. “There’s no way on earth, pun intended, that you can completely imagine the challenges of this unique environment.”

When the project was selected in mid-December, the team began the six-month process of creating, finalizing and testing their project, which must withstand what O’Rourke described as NASA’s “rigorous testing standards.”

This year the team’s experiment will focus on the solidification of fluids in zero gravity, and the malformations that occur during this process. It is the team’s end goal, O’Rourke said, to obtain publishable data that could held eliminate these defects, which could have applications for areas of research from manufacturing to climate change.

The team’s faculty advisor, professor John Wettlaufer, who has modeled such solidification of fluids mathematically, said in an e-mail that he is interested in discussing the random errors found experimentally.

In June, the team will spend 10 days at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, where they will meet with NASA leaders and prepare for their zero-gravity flights. Preparation for the flights includes spending time in a low-pressure chamber so that flight participants can experience the effects low pressure can have on them, O’Rourke said.

“Some laugh uncontrollably, others go catatonic; personally, my fingers just felt a little tingly until I passed out after two or three minutes,” O’Rourke said. “It’s really just NASA trying to show you how badass they can be.”

The flights take place over two days, with half the team flying each day, O’Rourke said. A modified Boeing 727 with removed seats, padded fuselage and special lab spaces for experimentation flies a parabolic path that gives the researchers approximately 30 seconds of zero gravity, repeated 30 times per flight.

“I would describe [zero gravity] as complete freedom,” O’Rourke said. “You are totally unencumbered. You are solely responsible for every motion you make — if you tap your foot on the floor you’ll go bouncing into the ceiling.”

The Yale Drop Team, which has six members, prides itself on being a “no-kill” team, said O’Rourke — a kill being a researcher vomiting in space. On a previous zero-gravity trip, another team’s flight hit some turbulence over the Gulf of Mexico, which resulted in over half of the other undergraduates vomiting, O’Rourke said.

Although O’Rourke is a seasoned zero-gravity traveler, other members of the team have never experienced the sensation for themselves.

“I’m most excited to see the NASA Johnson Space Center, and I’m a little scared of getting sick during the flight,” Allison West ’14 said. “We’ll be free falling in a B-727 jet … That should be scary in and of itself.”

The Yale Drop Team will be in Houston June 2-11.

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