The Ups and Downs of an Education in Microgravity

Education Geek Culture Space & Astronomy Technology
Imagine this in slow motion.
Imagine this in slow motion.

Enjoy this guest post by Leo Camacho, Media and Outreach Specialist with the Google Lunar XPrize. Camacho recently had the opportunity to participate in the NASA Microgravity University Program and shares his experiences with us today. This post explains the program; a follow-up post (coming soon) will describe Camacho’s experiences in near zero-G flight.

The relentless Texas sun beats down on a particularly humid day at Ellington air field in Houston. Small groups of people wait around an airplane hangar gate at 7 a.m. for guards to grant them access. The air is thick with anticipation and nerves limit the length of conversations as small groups of people from around the United States slowly arrive. Behind the gate sits an enormous airplane hangar and, as the doors slide open, silhouettes slowly emerge into the sunlight. Everyone shuffles and sharpens their attention as they get ready to start the week they’ve been preparing for for months.

This isn’t a scene out of Top Gun or some cheesy sci-fi pilot movie. This was my introduction to the NASA Microgravity University Program, which I had the honor of attending as the team journalist for Boise State University. It all sounds a bit dramatic in my description, but every aspect of this program is executed with military precision and can seem inspiringly overwhelming.

The Boise State team preps for their pre-flight inspection. Notice the matching mustaches for added team swagger. Said one, “When I think NASA, I think mustaches.”
The Boise State team preps for their pre-flight inspection. Notice the matching mustaches for added team swagger. Said one, “When I think NASA, I think mustaches.”

What is the program all about?

Undergraduate students from around the US submit proposals to design, build, and eventually test experiments specifically created for a microgravity environment. If the team is one of the 16 total teams selected, they must then fly out to Ellington field in Houston to board the Zero G aircraft. The plane is specifically outfitted to fly in parabolic patterns that emulate exactly what the plane’s name suggests: zero gravity.

Everyone on the base refers to this craft as “The Weightless Wonder,” which only adds to the element of anticipation. It’s exactly as you’d imagine. The plane flies very high, about 30,000 feet, and then drops very quickly, to about 15,000 feet, before recovering, and repeating the cycle all over again … 32 times to be exact. The effect within the plane is one of complete weightlessness and lasts anywhere from 20-30 seconds. This allows for a very unique environment that can provide a laboratory for science not normally achievable on the ground due to gravity’s effects. It’s also worth noting that on the way up, passengers and experiments alike experience 1.8 times gravity, also enabling unique experimentation.

The inside of the plane is prepped and padded for aimless floating for flailing.
The inside of the plane is prepped and padded for aimless floating or flailing.

How do you sign up?

The Microgravity University program succeeds in creating a truly unique experience in its own right, but what truly sets it apart is the level of dedication displayed by the students who participate. It’s no surprise that the competition these teams face as they attempt to be selected into a program of this caliber is extremely high. Although I flew with Boise State, many colleges are already enrolled in the program and compete each year to be chosen to fly. Proposals are rewritten dozens of times, experiments are tirelessly debated over and teammates are carefully hand-picked. That’s just to get in. Once you are chosen, you’ve got to build the thing.

To be selected, an original idea must be presented that pushes the boundaries of scientific or technical understanding, even if only a very small amount. In the case of Boise State University, they proposed to address “The Effects of Teriparatide on Calcium Signaling in Bone Cells During Parabolic Flight.” Simplified, this means they are studying how an FDA-approved drug affects bones at the cellular level during different gravities.

A little “Avengers” before the flight briefing to calm the nerves.
A little “Avengers” before the flight briefing to calm the nerves.

What is the point of the program?

This single experiment won’t cause an immediate cure to anything in particular, but it is the first step in developing data that can be further analyzed and one day potentially lead to cures in bone density loss for astronauts or aid those who suffer from osteoporosis and other forms of bone loss. That’s why this is so important. It’s the first step in a complicated process to better the world we live in.

As complicated as the science behind the experiment sounds, it’s made more impressive by the fact that the individuals who participate in this program are not directly related to either space or pharmaceuticals. Business and education majors along with biology, engineering and computer science majors comprise the interdisciplinary crew. In addition to the growth they experience in their specialty, each member must learn how every other leg of the team functions as well as learn new skills that push the boundaries of their capabilities and skill sets. Anyone can do it no matter what they specialize in. When you’ve finished, you emerge with a dynamic skillset that can be applied to almost any field.

Ready to fly. Luckily, their experiment needed no maintenance during the zero G portion so they could enjoy the ride.
Ready to fly. Luckily, their experiment needed no maintenance during the zero G portion so they could enjoy the ride.

Do I have to be a rocket scientist?

There are 14 members on the Boise State team. Each one of them spends between 15 and 35 hours a week working on this project — and that’s before considering schoolwork, jobs, and other extracurricular activities. Did I mention that no money is earned by participating in Microgravity University? The team is a student-organized endeavor, with support from faculty and graduate student mentors. A majority of the funding comes from grants which they must also apply for, giving the students experience in successful grant writing. It’s a labor of love, albeit a tough one, but they want to be there; these kids are serious.

Programs like NASA Microgravity University are essential as they enable individuals to tap into previously unattainable resources and experience. Tara Smith, a junior, coordinated the mandatory outreach programs, while James Pelton was able to apply his programming knowledge he had gathered while developing software that focused on the development of mice bones. By the time these students finish the program they will have fully formed expertise in a variety of fields. A few of my colleagues who work alongside me on the Google Lunar XPrize have flown Zero G through NASA’s Microgravity University Program and have said that it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that taught them invaluable lessons, let alone given them one of the best physical experiences of their lives.

Mandatory “cool guys in front of plane” shot.
Mandatory “cool guys in front of plane” shot.

Spread the word!

Educational programs are constantly evolving and appearing all over the world. Every manner of skill, trade, or process has a method of being taught and it’s up to the interested individual to find these programs and participate. The only problem is, many of these programs are so busy trying to provide quality education that they do not receive the attention they deserve. Everyone should be aware that they can participate, traditional and non-traditional students alike. Matt Dolan, the graduate student advisor for the Boise State University undergraduate team, is the perfect example. He served in the military before returning to school, and while pursuing his undergraduate engineering degree, joined a Boise State microgravity team during his senior year. Anyone can do it.

The Microgravity University Program, and every variant from kindergarten to undergrad, offers the once in a lifetime opportunity to experience something truly unique and provide any individual with skills that they will benefit from for the rest of their lives while simultaneously advancing the world we live in … not a bad deal.

The road to these accomplishments is, without a doubt, a tough one, but when I asked a student if it was worth all of the effort and stress he paused for a moment and then responded with a thoughtful “In the end, yes.” Education is the key and programs like Microgravity University are the doors to a world of infinite possibility.

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1 thought on “The Ups and Downs of an Education in Microgravity

  1. Zero Gravity Corporation, or ZERO-G, is a privately owned company that is very proud to provide microgravity services for NASA’s Reduced Gravity Office. We have been providing that service for six years. Just to clarify, our aircraft is actually referred to as “G-FORCE ONE”. The term “The Weightless Wonder” refers to a different aircraft that NASA no longer uses for this particular program. If you’d like more information about “G-FORCE ONE” or ZERO-G’s other programs, please feel free to email me at Thanks for flying!!

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