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Carthage team tests zero-g fuel gauge


By Elizabeth Young

For the Kenosha News

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HOUSTON — As a veteran employee at Six Flags Great America, Danielle Weiland has been on every roller coaster in the Gurnee, Ill., amusement park. But not even four years of ups and downs could have prepared her for Wednesday’s flight on NASA’s zero-gravity plane.

“The experience of the flight was better than all of the roller coasters combined,” said Danielle, a Carthage sophomore from Kenosha. “I hope to do it again next year, and I’m going to brag to all of my coaster friends that this is the best coaster ever.”

G-Force One, aka the “Weightless Wonder,” is used by NASA to train astronauts, conduct research and test equipment. It creates periods of weightlessness for its passengers by repeatedly climbing and falling as it flies. The plane soars to about 34,000 feet, then free-falls about 10,000 feet before climbing again. With every pull-up, passengers experience 1.7g to 2g. With every fall, passengers float in zero gravity for 20 to 25 seconds at a time.

The Carthage students were selected to conduct research on the Weightless Wonder through NASA’s Systems Engineering Educational Discovery program, which pairs college teams with NASA engineers to design and test experiments essential to NASA goals. The Carthage students used groundbreaking fuel gauge technology to measure propellant volume in zero-g.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to participate in such a flight, said Veronica Seyl, acting manager for NASA’s Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program. In a briefing before Wednesday’s flights, Seyl urged all students to make the most of the experience.

“When you are on board and doing your research, take time to look around you, and sear that moment into your brain,” she said.

Describing the experience of zero gravity proves difficult for flyers. “There really isn’t a way to describe it,” said Carthage junior Steven Mathe of Wauconda, Ill. “There were times in zero g when I could have sworn I was upside down when I wasn’t. It was incredible.”

“It was absolutely amazing,” said Carthage junior John Robinson, of Kenosha. “The whole time I was floating around, I was just thinking ‘This is so incredibly awesome.’“

A longtime gymnast, Robinson took the opportunity to flip and spin in zero-g, and also attempted a 2g push-up.

The students were there to run the experiment that they’ve been working on since October. Team leader Amber Bakkum, a Carthage senior from Winthrop Harbor, Ill., has been to NASA’s Johnson Space Center three times, and has flown twice.

“This program gives students a sense of what scientists do, in a really fun, one-of-a-kind way,” Bakkum said. “Instead of doing a lab in a controlled classroom, you get to go out in the field on this airplane and do research that actual NASA researchers do.”

That’s the whole point, said team advisor Kevin Crosby, a physics professor at Carthage. “For me, it’s not the experience of zero-g as much as it is the experience of the doing of science and engineering in a way that matters to people. They’re working on projects that may see the light of day in commercial industries or the space program, and they can take pride in having participated in high-level research at such an early stage in their careers.”

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