Alaska students recount out-of-this-world experience

UAF team conducts experiment in zero-gravity chamber

Posted: Thursday, August 20, 2009

KENAI - Indescribable. Unlike anything else. Too unique for words.

For four local University of Alaska Fairbanks students, words can't express the experience of floating in zero gravity.

"There's no way to describe it without having experienced it. It's just incredible," said Tess Caswell, UAF graduate who recently participated in NASA's Microgravity University program at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

Caswell, who graduated from Soldotna High School in 2004, was part of a six-person team - all UAF students - that traveled to Houston for the two-week program, which took place the first half of June.

One of Caswell's teammates, Wyatt Rehder of Homer, agreed with her about zero gravity.

"You pretty much have to be there to know what zero gravity is like," he said.

Back in October, the group had to submit a project proposal to NASA in the hopes of being selected for the program. With only 20 spaces available to fly on one of NASA's planes to conduct experiments in zero gravity, the competition was stiff.

The trip was made possible due to funding provided by the Alaska Space Grant Program.

While in Houston, the group studied the stability of a satellite while deploying solar panels - in zero gravity, of course.

To achieve the feeling of zero gravity, a plane flies in a parabolic arc, climbing at first, then diving. It's during the dive portion of the arc that weightlessness is experienced.

The group tested the satellite during two days of flights. Each day they did 30 parabolas.

"It's really cool," Caswell said.

"It's like being under water but definitely a lighter feeling," said Andrew Paxson, of Soldotna. "The slightest jolt will just kinda send you floating in one direction."

Although zero gravity resembles being under water, Paxson said no matter how hard he attempted to "swim," his body wouldn't go anywhere.

Ben Kellie, Nikiski High School 2005 graduate, said working on a computer was difficult without gravity. Every time you press a key, you start to float away, he said.

Most of the teams' two weeks were spent in the hangar, preparing the project for flight, Paxson said. It had to be rebuilt because it was broken down for shipping to Texas.

Paxson said the group had to make sure everything would operate correctly during their flying sessions.

Kellie, who participated in the program last year, knew what to expect, which worked to his team's advantage.

Kellie said the team worked hard prior to going to Houston, so when they arrived, they only had to fine-tune the satellite.

"While other teams were stressing out, we were sitting pretty," he said.

Caswell estimated about 80 other students participated in the Microgravity University program.

"It was very hectic," she said.

The group was given a behind-the-scenes tour of the space station, including a visit to the mission control and they even got to see a lunar rover.

"It was educational to see the inner workings of NASA," Paxson said.

For Kellie, being around engineers and the other teams and just "talking shop" was his favorite part of the program.

"It was really neat to network with everyone," he said.

For Caswell, nothing was better than flying in zero gravity.

"That moment was the culmination," she said. "It was just awesome."

Caswell, who studied mechanical engineering, said her interest in space started when she was in elementary school and a NASA representative spoke to her class.

After graduating this year, Caswell started a job as a space station operator with United Space Alliance, a company contracted by NASA. She works at Johnson Space Center.

"It's an exciting place to be," she said.

For now, Caswell is content with her new job, though, she said her dream is to be an astronaut.

Paxson, a mechanical engineering student, said he's always been interested in space. That interest strengthened during his childhood as he read several books on space at the Soldotna Library.

After he graduates, Paxson said he hopes to find a job working in the aerospace field.

Kellie, also studying mechanical engineering, said he'd like to be involved with any job that allows him to apply his troubleshooting or mechanical design skills.

Growing up, Kellie often went flying with his father, which sparked his interest in the field.

"I've always been interested in aeronautics," he said.

With three years left at UAF, Rehder, a mechanical engineering and electrical engineering student, isn't looking too far into his future, but said he'd like to intern with NASA or another aerospace company.

Rehder couldn't pinpoint why he was interested in space, but has always enjoyed building things and engineering seemed like the right path to take, he said.

No matter the reason for being interested in outer space, every team member had an incredible experience in Houston.

"It was a lot of fun," Rehder said. "If I had a chance to do it again, I'd definitely do it again. It's definitely unique."

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