Purdue University Zero Gravity Research Program
The "Vomit Comit" Program at Purdue
Since 1997, Purdue students have been involved with a NASA program known as the "Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program." (RGSFOP) Teams from Purdue travel down to Houston, Texas, to participate in the 10-day program. The program includes 4 hours of classroom time, physiological testing, and experiment review. The RGSFOP is open to any undergraduate student (not just AAE students). The image to the left shows Purdue Students Justin Voo and Matt Verbecke aboard the KC-135 in the Spring of 2004. Along with the rest of the team, these students studied fluid contact angles in zero gravity.
Ways to get involved at Purdue
There are two different ways to participate in the zero-g program. Most students take an independent study class. In the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics this is called a "490" class. A team of students find an advisor and complete all of the work themselves. Credit can be awarded for this type of class.
The other way of participating is taking a design/build/test class (AAE 418). Students in this class work together the same way they would in an independent study course, but AAE 418 has scheduled class time. This maximizes the chances of participating in NASA's Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunity Program. This class is the first of its kind in the world. Students work directly with Steven Collicott, Purdue's long time zero-g advisor.
You can contact Dr. Collicott at firstname.lastname@example.org
The first step is submission of a proposal to NASA for review. Following acceptance, the students must build what they designed in the proposal. This process often involves design changes. During this process, the team must write a follow-up to the proposal called a TEDP. This "Test Equipment Data Package" details the experiment in its final version. Any changes to the proposal must be documented here.
After the TEDP is submitted, the next step (after months of further work) is shipping the experiment to Ellington Field in Houston. When the team arrives at Ellington Field for the first time during the flight week, the first task is to reassemble the experiment. Once reassembled, the NASA crew and flight engineers to a final Test Readiness Review (TRR) to see if the experiment seems safe enough to have aboard the aircraft.
The Vomit Comet Aircraft Past and Present
From 1997 to 2004, the teams flew aboard the KC-135A "Weightless Wonder," also known as the Vomit Comet. Over 100 Purdue students flew aboard the KC-135 during its years of service. In 2004, Professor Collicott made his first flight aboard the Vomit Comet.
As of the summer of 2005, Purdue students had completed 3285 zero-g parabolas, 99 lunar parabolas, and 99 Martian parabolas. This means students have spent nearly a day in zero gravity, and about an hour each in moon and Mars gravity.
> The new Vomit Comet is a C-9B. This Weightless Wonder entered service in 2005 following the retirement of the KC-135. The aircraft is smaller than its predecessors, so NASA has had to cut the number of teams accepted from 75 to 50. However, Purdue continues to send numerous teams down each year. In exchange for the opportunity to fly, NASA expects that each team write and submit a report following the conclusion of the program. This report contains the technical data that NASA hopes to use in future engineering in zero gravity. These reports continue to remind us that even though we get to "play" in zero-g, we are still performing experiments that are on the cutting edge of technology and engineering.
Student experiments cover a wide range of research areas. In the past, Purdue students have studied fluid mechanics, structures, electronics, and many other fields of study. Performing the experiment in zero gravity poses one of the biggest challenges of the program. Making your equipment work with your feet floating over your head isn't easy. While the main purpose is to perform your experiment successfully, there is still plenty of time for fun. The image to the left shows Purdue students James Kallimani and Chris Fles in the Spring of 2004 during one of 30 "weightless" parabolas on the plane. To demonstrate weightlessness for the cameras, students can even bring small toys onboard like basketballs, yo-yos, and stuffed animals.
Images on this page courtesy of NASA