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NASA is really great about
having many, many programs that
students can participate in and
one of its programs is called
The Reduced Gravity Education
Flight Program. Of course we all
love the acronyms NASA has,
RGRFP. And within the umbrella
of reduced gravity programs that
NASA has is something called
SEED, systems engineering
educational discovery, and that
is program that we the team from
MIT participated in.
The whole goal behind this
particular project is that
there's an emphasis on systems
engineering. NASA has these
projects they want students to
work on and what we have to do
as a team, is to propose that we
are a good, cohesive team with
different skill sets and that we
can perform systems engineering.
So each of us can contribute in
different ways to make a
particular project successful.
And that's exactly what we did.
We put in a proposal defining
what systems engineering is,
giving a little resume for each
of us on the team and saying
these are the projects that we
would love to work on. And we
got chosen as one of six teams
that would participate in SEED
out of approximately thirty
applications. So Meera and I
were roommates at NASA Jet
Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)
over the summer, last year. And
her friend had participated in
this program and she asked if
I'd like to start a team with
her. Right away my response
was, sure! An opportunity to fly
in microgravity, who wouldn't
take that! So we slowly started
deciding how we would want to form
this team, when we would start
and we collaborated with two mentors
from NASA Johnson Center to
design and test a model
artificial gravity vehicle.
So when astronauts go into space
one problem that they have is
that they are in a microgravity
environment all the time. They're
floating around in spacecrafts
without any gravity and this can
have some negative effects on the
body. You get bone loss and
muscle deterioration. And people
have tried several different
ways of mitigating this. What
our project aims to do is to
create artificial gravity for
humans so that they are still
in a 1g environment when they
go up in space.
This is a model of this proof
of concept spacecraft. It
operates on the fundamentals
of conservation of angular moment-
um. So what this is, is basically a
two foot long truss. On one end
are flywheels that operating on a
motor and on the other end is
this astronaut habitat.
So the way this spacecraft will
hopefully work is we have this
motor at the end with the fly-
wheels on it, we spin that up in
one direction. You can see the
direction with the arrow on the
top there. So this thing spins
in one direction and if this
thing starts out floating
completely still and you spin
these flywheels that will cause
the rest of the spacecraft to
spin in the opposite direction.
And hopefully what this does is
it induces an acceleration down
here where the astronauts are
living. If you tune the speed
that you spin this thing just
right you can actually create
1g of acceleration at this end
for the astronauts to live in.
So we wanted to see if this
concept would actually work and
whether the spin would be stable.
And we kind of needed to do this
in microgravity because we could
test this on the ground by
suspending it from a string
through the center of gravity
however the string, depending on
how the motors works and how it
spins, it could impart torques
and forces that would influence
the spinning of this model and it
wouldn't be exactly what we
would expect.
If you asked my teammates right
away they would tell you Henna
was nervous. I was definitely
a lot more nervous than the
others in terms of flying. When
it came to the thought of flying
in microgravity everyone was
excited, I was excited but at
the same time I was scared I was
going to vomit, scared I'd get
sick, scared I would not be able
to finish controlling the laptop,
because my job in microgravity
would be to control the commands
from our laptop to our
experiment.
I think everyone has a moment
in their childhood when they
say, "I want to be an astronaut."
It's one of the coolest careers
out there and not many people
get to do it. This is one step
closer to being an astronaut so
I mean who doesn't want to be
able to fly in microgravity and
just be in a completely different
environment than what you're
used to. It's completely exhilarating.
You can't really imagine what it
is going to feel like until you
started to lift up out of your
seat and suddenly your eyes knew
that you were right side up
inside the plane but your brain
suddenly couldn't tell which
direction was up. What happened
to me was my vision started to
swim and I was looking at my
mentor Tom and his face started
to stretch and it was a very,
very strange thing that happened
to my vision. You look around on
that first parabola and
everybody who was there for the
first time, their eyes were
really wide just trying to figure
out what was going on in their
brains because they couldn't see.
So that was definitely the
strangest thing about that first
parabola, and being weightless
for the first time.
The reason why I got involved
in this project is because
Meera's friend had told Meera
about it and Meera asked me if
I would like to get involved and
just like that, we want to take
our experiences to students
through Boston and Cambridge and
get them excited about the
opportunities that are out there.
A year ago I would never have
thought that I would get to fly
on the microgravity plane,
testing an experiment with so
many amazing students and
mentors. And having this
opportunity we've realized that
we have to make sure that
students know that the impossible
is actually possible.