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Students to Fly Aboard Reduced-Gravity Aircraft

By Neena S. Kadaba

Through NASA’s Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program, eleven MIT students will leave Saturday to fly on the Johnson Space Center’s KC-135A reduced gravity aircraft, commonly known as the “Vomit Comet.” Students submitted research proposals to NASA last November for the chance to conduct their research in the aircraft’s microgravity environment.

Each of the three groups, composed of three to four students, will depart tomorrow for a week of training followed by their flight next week. Their flight of forty parabolas will span from Texas to Mexico and back. With each parabola, the KC-135A climbs and then descends 7,000 feet, creating nearly thirty seconds of microgravity.

Students attended a Readiness Review last Saturday in anticipation of their flight during the week of Mar. 22. The program began with an introduction by Charles Oman, Director of the Man-Vehicle Laboratory, who shared his own experiences aboard the KC-135A.

Student teams present proposals

Three Aeronautics & Astronautics majors, Christopher E. Carr ’99, Elizabeth M. Walker ’99, and David T. Pinson ’01, presented “NIMBLE: A Non-Invasive Microgravity Biomedical Life-Sciences Experiment.” The project’s objective is to “build and test a flexible wearable computer system for astronauts that serves as a bio-monitoring device and multipurpose tool. We will specifically monitor the human heart during micro-gravity and hypergravity using pulse-oximetry and ECG measurements,” said Carr, NIMBLE’s team leader.

The NIMBLE team hopes to demonstrate the capability of the computer system by recording and processing biomedical information. The system also tests the workload demands on the user, Pinson said.

“This is critical to demonstrate it for possible use on the International Space Station, because it is important for equipment not to encumber the astronauts who use them,” Pinson said. The team hopes that the system could replace checklists and manuals for in-flight maintenance and duties.

The second project, proposed by Course XVI major Tyra E. Rivkin ’99 and Biology majors Julie D. Gesch ’00 and Mark Y. Sun ’00, is entitled “PREVIEW: PeRiphEral VIsion Experimentation in Weightlessness.”

“The basic objective of our project is to characterize the human peripheral vision field and how it is affected by changes in the gravitational forces on the body. Basically, we are looking to see if peripheral vision changes between 1-g and 0-g,” Rivkin said.

The basis for their experiment is the phenomenon of Peripheral Light Loss, commonly known as tunnel vision. “If we find that the peripheral field is altered one way or another while in orbit, that could lead to a change in how we design displays and instrument panels on spacecrafts where astronauts spend long periods of time in space,” Rivkin said.

The third KC-135 group is “SoLo: Sound Localization Team,” with team leader Raffi C. Krikorian ’00 of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, Samidh Chakrabarti ’01, Course VI and Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Sharmila D. Singh ’01, Course XVI, and Boris Zbarsky ’01, Physics and Math major.

Krikorian explained the design of the project on sound localization as one based on the idea that “if we provide two slightly different sounds to each of your ears of a single sound source, your brain will mix them so you can hear sound in three dimensions.” The goal of their project is to find out how sound localization varies in micro-gravity.

This is important for the design and development of long term micro-gravity housing, since people need to take audio cues constantly, Krikorian said.

“If we can determine the limits of the human body’s sound localization mechanism, we can design more accurate simulations of micro-gravity, and it will give housing designers more data to take into account for making efficient housing,” Krikorian said.

Student experience far-reaching

Students who worked on the proposals found that their studies and experiences ranged far beyond the specific subject of their project.

“I learned quite a bit about team dynamics and how nothing ever goes as planned. Learning how to develop contingency plans and contingency plans for the contingency plans becomes invaluable as the scope of a project increases,” Rivkin said.

The hands-on experience of project design also had a strong effect on the students. “It has been an intense experience all the way through the project so far- I’ve learned more about practical electronics, space biomedical data, and most importantly business relations than I could ever have image of class,” Pinson said.

Despite the intensive work involved with each project, students thought the opportunity to fly on the KC-135A was more than worthy of the effort. “As our departure for Houston draws near, we’re putting the finishing touches on the experiment and realizing just how fortunate we are to have the chance to do this,” Singh said.

The three groups have been preparing for months with the help of advisers Newman and Air Force Colonel Peter Young, a visiting lecturer in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. The students will return from Johnson Space Center around Mar. 27, and will spend time during the months of April and May sharing their experiences with local junior high and high school students.

Sponsors of MIT teams include the Massachusetts Space Grant Consortium, the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the Bose Corporation, Charles River Analytics, Sennheiser Acoustics, Apple Computers, Analog Devices, Inc. and the MIT Media Lab.