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A mission of gravity

Students take stomach-churning plunge on NASA's Vomit Comet

An expanded Web version of segments seen on CNN

May 1, 1997
Web posted at: 12:06 p.m. EDT (1606 GMT)

From Correspondent Miles O'Brien

HOUSTON (CNN) --- To fly on this plane, you've got to have the right stuff -- including industrial strength motion-sickness pills and barf bags by the bundle.

The plane, NASA's Vomit Comet, is aptly named, as a group of Texas A&M University undergraduates recently were given a chance to find out.

The cadets, decked out in olive green, were willing to turn green in the pursuit of scientific research -- and to get a taste of weightlessness.

The plane is a KC-135, the military version of the Boeing 707. Based in Houston, NASA flies it over the Gulf of Mexico in a roller coaster pattern known as a parabolic curve.

NASA normally uses the Vomit Comet to train astronauts, test equipment and carry out experiments.

The fun starts when the plane noses over into a steep dive, creating a free fall that simulates the weightlessness of outer space.

But the price for 30 seconds of floating fun is sudden, equal doses of two Gs, or a doubling of Earth's gravity. It's the sudden reversal that causes many passengers to lose their lunch.

'You can go to the beach any day'

In fact, it's tougher than riding on the space shuttle, says test director Bob Williams. After 65,000 parabolas, he should know.

movie icon M o v i e
Williams says flying on the Vomit Comet is tougher than riding in a space shuttle.
(13 sec. /485K QuickTime movie)

"You are going up there and having lots of hyper G -- or more than one-G -- experiences and then you swoop to zero-G and do this over and over again," Williams said. "It's hard on you."

The Texas A&M team was among about 100 students from two dozen colleges who answered NASA's call for proposals to design, build and fund a smorgasbord of scientific experiments to take place in free fall.

Student have studied the human circulatory system, tested an idea for a space-station damage detector and, in Texas A&M's case, looked at ways to separate liquids and gases in space.

"It is just a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You can go to the beach any day," said Elizabeth King, a junior at Texas A&M.

Parting with the last meal

The students were carefully scrutinized before the flight. Each had to pass a rigorous physical exam, spend some time in a chamber that creates conditions found at high altitude and pass a written test.

The program has cost NASA about $100,000, but NASA officials say it's money well spent if some of these bright minds are enticed to join the ranks.

Student DeLeah Lockridge was among the "kills," as NASA lovingly calls those who become separated from their latest meal while in flight.


"It was kind of like being on a roller coaster going over the top when your stomach jumps to the top. ... But on the KC-135, it never came down," Lockridge said.

She was not alone. By the 40th and final parabola, the cushioned cabin looked like a battlefield, littered with casualties of nausea.

But at the conclusion of the trip, the enthusiasm quickly returned. One student termed it "the most fun I've ever had throwing up."

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