Space Cowgirl Dreams: In Zero Gravity at 30,000 Feet at NASA's Space Camp

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L-R: Patrick Martinchek, Melissa Jun Rowley, Andrew Chou, Nathan McKayL-R: Patrick Martinchek, Melissa Jun Rowley, Andrew Chou, Nathan McKay

When I was in grade school I had dreams of becoming an astronaut. Not unlike my additional aspirations of one day becoming a cowgirl, an Olympic runner, and a race horse jockey, my visions of flying as a weightless warrior in a land far far away were pushed aside when I discovered I couldn’t escape my inner journalist -- the truth seeker in my blood. Fortunately, this truth seeker is still a thrill seeker, who managed to get recruited as the team journalist for a group of brilliant and dedicated aerospace engineering students from the University of Michigan, who needed a reporter to fly in zero-gravity with them this past week. On June 17, I ventured into the unforgiving heat and humidity of Houston, Texas, to start my first day of NASA’s Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program at Ellington Field at 7 a.m. sharp.

Day one of space camp was reminiscent of the first day of school. The staff introduced themselves and went over all of the rules and regulations. Later, each space engineering team worked on the experiments that would be tested in zero gravity in a matter of days. The only thing missing from the first-day vibe was an onslaught of hyperactive students with an inability to focus. In a heat index of 107 degrees, the young rocket scientists worked diligently on strain gauges, IMUs, and other mechanisms that are completely foreign to me. (Good thing I didn’t try to become an astronaut.)

Space Camp students at work

Day two of space camp involved training with a limited oxygen supply in a hypobaric chamber. After a three-hour lecture about the symptoms and dangers of hypoxia, we entered the chamber and experienced how having a significant lack of oxygen to the brain feels at 25,000 feet. To test our cognitive skills while in that state, we took a short quiz. One of the tasks was to list eight states that start with the letter M. I could only think of two. Luckily, we all passed training and received certification to fly.

Day three of space camp was not a good day for me. I had a horrible stomachache and a fever. I’m convinced it was some kind of food poisoning or heat stroke. Concerned that I might not be able to fly the next day, I stayed undercover until noon. After a few hours of sweating it out, I willed myself into feeling healthy.

Day four of space camp, I was as good as new and ready to fly. About an hour before flight, the staff doctor gave us some fun motion sickness drugs. I remember thinking that if I felt as good at zero gravity as I did on those drugs, I was in for the ride of my life.

In Zero Gravity at 30,000 Feet

Well, the light-as-a-feather feeling I had from the drugs evaporated as soon as we took to the air. During the one-and-a-half-hour ride, which felt more like 30 minutes, our plane did 30 parabolas at 30,000 feet -- meaning we inclined to 30,000 feet and then dove back down 30 times.

Melissa Rowley

Being in zero gravity was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. My initial reaction to not having any weight (or gravity, I should say) was to fight my weightlessness. After the third parabola, I released the floor straps I was clenching dearly. As soon as I let go, I made a beeline for the wall of the cabin so I could grab the rope near the ceiling. Just as I grabbed my security blanket, the plane began to descend, and everyone was forced to the floor. In 20 seconds, we went from zero gravity (zero-g) to double gravity (2G).

Being in 2G was an unpleasant relaxation. Lying down was nice, for the most part, but I knew that in a matter of seconds I’d be catapulted back to the roof. As soon as we entered zero gravity again, I let myself rise to the top, which was fine until I unwittingly did a flip in the air and knocked over a video camera with my legs. Five seconds later, I was forced back down to the ground by a powerful muscle of gravity. Eventually, I got into a groove and was able to navigate the changing tides. I even captured some video with my z18 of the Michigan team working on their project.

U of M’s experiment, the extendable solar array system (XSAS), is designed to increase the power of small satellites, CubeSats to be specific, up to six times. Because of the complexity of the contraption, which is an accordion-like structure that starts at 10 cm by 10 cm and unfolds to two meters, the young engineers need to gather data to support the full-scale model. This data was collected in zero gravity. Here’s a peek:

Flying in Zero Gravity #XSAS from melissajunrowley.com on Vimeo.

Overall, I had an incredible time learning from the Microgravity XSAS team and the NASA staff. I was definitely out of my element, which forced me to look at my position in this world differently, figuratively and literally. Flying in zero gravity will do that to you:) I encourage everyone to venture into the great unknown whenever possible. It's good for the soul.

Melissa Jun Rowley is a television and online journalist who has covered business news from the New York Stock Exchange for CNN Business News, red carpet glamour from the Oscars for CNN Entertainment, and social action movements for Causecast and Mashable. She has also produced and reported for Associated Press Television News, AMC, TV Guide Channel, E! Entertainment and TechTV. Melissa is currently a Cause Correspondent for Whatgives.com. She is the creator and host of the social good web series "Good and Ready," which features celebrities, brands, and non-profits coming together for social good. She also co-produces and co-hosts the talk show with a twist, "In Bed With...," on Mingle Media TV.

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