Flight of the Techers
While zero-gravity flights have recently become available to the common person, they are still a distant dream for most of us—unless, of course, you have an extra $5,000 or so to burn. Luckily, Caltech students aren’t common people. In fact, five undergrads got the chance this spring to experience weightlessness at 34,000 feet in the name of science.
During the week of June 6 the team—Mackenzie Day, Colin Ely, Supriya Iyer, Robert Karol, and Connie Sun—tested thin-walled carbon-fiber hinges aboard NASA’s “vomit comet,” a Boeing 727 modified by the Zero Gravity Corporation for microgravity flights. It was the final, exhilarating step in a six-month process in which the students proposed, designed, and fabricated their experiment.
Each team member rode one of two flights high above the Gulf of Mexico, with the flights consisting of 30 parabolas of about 20 seconds of microgravity each. During the flights the students tested how the hinges behaved at different initial angles under various loads (achieved via attached weights) and with different thermal histories. The hinges were designed by grad student Chinthaka Mallikarachchi and fabricated in, with , the Kresa Professor of Aeronautics and professor of civil engineering, as faculty advisor. The experiments wererecorded via high-speed video cameras for detailed analysis on the ground later. —KN