Purdue AAE Students Learning in Zero-Gravity

Every year since NASA began the Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunity Program (RGSFOP) in 1996 Purdue AAE students have participated with winning research proposals and original student-built experiments.

Now over 100 Purdue students and one AAE Professor have amassed 19 hours in zero-gravity , approximately 11 orbits of the International Space Station, performing 29 original student-built experiments! In the Lunar and Martian parabolas flown by NASA in this program, our students have accumulated nearly 1 hour of time in Lunar gravity and 45 minutes in Martian gravity. The New York Times and the Good Morning America show have joined our students for this flight-test program.

Professor Collicott's AAE418 Zero-Gravity Flight Experiment course is the key to AAE's consistent participation in this competitive NASA program. Every fall NASA solicits student proposals for original experiments that require zero-gravity and that can be performed safely in the 25 seconds of weightlessness created in the NASA airplane. NASA then selects the top proposals for flight testing and only these winning teams from around the nation get to fly. Purdue AAE has been a consistently strong performer in these selections. Professor Collicott attributes this success to, "The strong fundamentals in our curriculum, the teaming abilities of our students, the ability of AAE to continue to attract top students from around the country, and the impressive focus that our ambitious and intelligent students muster and maintain to succeed in this program."

The benefits to the students are so much more than a fun ride in weightlessness. Professor Collicott notes, "The program is an open-ended, team-based, multi-disciplinary, no-answers-in-the-back-of-the-book, real-world, aerospace engineering experience." In AAE 418 the students work as a team to conceive, design, and propose an original experiment that requires zero-gravity to perform.

The zero-gravity flight itself is a wonderful experience for students. Each 25-second period of weightlessness is created in a large parabolic flight path through the sky. Up to 40 of these parabolas are flown in one morning, often followed by a single lunar gravity parabola and a Martian gravity parabola. When focused on the experiment and on acquiring the data that the project has been designed to collect Purdue's AAE students deliver results. Students in flight are forced into immediate decisions by flight plan changes, plumbing leaks, damage from an errant student, an ill partner, and other similar last minute circumstances. In this manner the NASA program provides students with valuable experience making real-life technical decisions about a complex experiment when time is critical.