The Right Stuff

By Martha Hunter Shepard ’66


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The team: Daniel Keedy ’06, Desmond Campbell ’06, Kevin Andring ’07, John Janeski ’07 and Sean Quinn ’06 donning flight suits in the hangar

"The right stuff." The first U.S. astronauts had it. It meant courage, know-how, skill— must-haves for anyone preparing to venture into the unknown.

Fast-forward to August 2006. At Ellington Field in Houston near the Johnson Space Center, five Rhodes science majors are set to embark on the trip of a lifetime, much of it in microgravity—weightlessness. They are scheduled to perform, successfully, a physics experiment—orbiting a small electrically-charged sphere around a larger stationary one in microgravity aboard NASA’s specially-equipped C-9B “Weightless Wonder” aircraft (“vomit comet,” to those who didn’t prepare). It’s a flight known to have its ups and downs—the weightlessness comes on the downturns—and that’s exactly what they wanted.

Physics majors Desmond Campbell ’06, Sean Quinn ’06, Kevin Andring ’07 and John Janeski ’07 and biochemistry and molecular biology major Daniel Keedy ’06 are about to prove they indeed have “the right stuff.”

What if?

Their venture began in October 2005, when physics professor Brent Hoffmeister saw an announcement about NASA’s summer Microgravity University program for college students and wondered if it was something that might interest his students.

“I thought, ‘What the heck. Let’s look at this,’” he says. “Within three minutes of that thought, I called [physics professors] Chad Middleton and Shubho Banerjee. I said, ‘Can we talk for 30 minutes and see if we can come up with an idea for students to do a microgravity experiment?’ We bounced a few things around and came up with an idea. I was teaching a course about electricity and magnetism, which was central to the physics in this experiment, so I presented our idea to the class. I told them they’d have to write a 30-40-page proposal to NASA, that it would be a lot of work and they’d have only three or four weeks in which to do it. Three people expressed interest. Within a week, as the class warmed to the idea, a couple of more joined us.”

The proposal for the experiment, titled “Orbital Dynamics of Electrically-Charged Spheres,” was due Oct. 19, 2005. The students wrote it in 2 1/2 weeks. Their thesis:

    “Coulomb’s Law and orbital motion equations predict that the electrostatic force between two oppositelycharged spheres will allow a small sphere to orbit a larger, stationary sphere. To our knowledge, this has never been demonstrated macroscopically. We propose to test an apparatus whereby a small metal sphere (radius = 2 cm), with a voltage of 8.2 kV, will orbit a large, stationary metal sphere (radius = 5 cm) with an equal and opposite voltage. The small metal sphere will be given an initial velocity of approximately 0.1 m/s tangent to the path of the orbit by means of a spring-loaded launcher. The orbital radius will be 0.3 m. A microgravity environment will allow the small sphere to move in a circular orbit, and frictional forces will be effectively minimized. Data will be collected by two video cameras, one positioned above and perpendicular to the orbital plane and the other parallel to the plane. The data analysis, based mostly on the overhead view, will be conducted using video motion analysis software called Videopoint. The motion will be analyzed to verify our theoretical predictions of orbital motion caused by electrostatics.”

After a thorough review by experts, NASA accepted the proposal and notified the students in early January.

“I spent my entire winter break with white knuckles, checking my e-mail every 20 minutes,” recalls team captain Kevin Andring. “For some strange reason—of course, it just had to be—NASA sent the e-mail accepting us to the program while I was on a plane back to Memphis. Not only that, there were e-mails waiting from Sean Quinn and Profs. Hoffmeister and Banerjee saying, ‘Awesome, guys! We did it!’”

Brainstorming

That irony quickly gave way to euphoria, then reality, as the team went to work. It was a dream team: the five students, physics professors Hoffmeister and Banerjee, technical associate Glen Davis and departmental assistant Eva Owens. From the classroom to the shop to the front office, it was symbiotic from the start. The professors dropped much of their own research to advise the students. Davis, who supervised the building of the apparatus, and Owens, who kept the books, additionally offered hours of encouragement. Jack Taylor, professor emeritus of physics, is fond of saying to Owens, “Eva, you run a tight ship.” That “ship’s” crew grew even tighter as the months went on.

Spring semester 2006. The students began with calculations. At first, they met with faculty once a week, then daily.

“We first met in Brent’s office and assigned tasks,” says Banerjee. “One student would do the calculations, one would run the data, etc. There was no room for error. Everything went through a vigorous check from all members of the team.”

“They were brainstorming sessions at first,” says Desmond Campbell, who is currently in a physics bridge program at Fisk and Vanderbilt universities. “We would come up with ideas and the faculty would tell us if they sounded right, if they would work in principle. The students would do computations and the faculty would assist us with any equations we might need. We would take those equations, apply them to our experiment, then go to the computer and do the data analysis. There were times at our meetings when we’d be all down about it. Then we’d think about it over the weekend and come back fresh on Monday with a new method or solution to a problem.”

“The students did it, we didn’t. They’d bring back their information to the group and we’d discuss it,” emphasizes Hoffmeister, who likens the creation of the experiment to the Apollo mission to the moon in that “no one had done it before, so there was no basis of experience, and you had to imagine every possible problem that you could encounter. This was a completely alien environment. None of us had ever been weightless before, and it was as far outside our fields of research as you can get.” Undaunted, they did their computations, determined which materials would work and how to construct the apparatus. “The right stuff,” ever present, was beginning to show.

The apparatus

Four of the students completed construction of the experiment in Rhodes Tower during summer 2006. Andring, who had labored on it during spring semester, was off to his summer job as a commercial fisherman in Alaska. He would return in August.

The team members had decided to mount the apparatus on a wooden frame that could be bolted to the floor of the plane (NASA rules). In the center of the frame, which measured approximately 5’ x 5’ x 2’, they placed a plastic rod through a hollow aluminum sphere (five-inch diameter). Connected to the aluminum sphere was a cable leading to the high voltage power supply. They installed a small sliding launching mechanism above the power supply. The power supply both electrically charged a smaller sphere (a graphite-covered Styrofoam ball with a radius of two centimeters) that was ejected by hand around the larger one, which had an opposite voltage. On paper and in the team’s fervent expectations, the small sphere would orbit the larger one in microgravity. The final touch was attaching two video cameras to the frame to record the experiment.

Just so they wouldn’t be flying blind, Memphian Spence Wilson, chair of the Rhodes Board of Trustees and a pilot, volunteered to give the team a preview of 0g (microgravity) during the summer. Wilson took them up in a Cessna, flying several parabolas (the straight ups and downs), achieving 0g for a few seconds on each downturn. It was enough for them to feel the actual sensation and to see pens and a camera bag float around the cabin.

The week of Aug. 7, 2006, the team dismantled the apparatus, loaded it into Sean Quinn’s SUV and set off for Houston. Hoffmeister and associate physics professor Ann Viano joined them there. Neither faculty was allowed to fly with the team on the “Weightless Wonder.” The experience is for students only (NASA rules).

The inquisition

In Houston, NASA treated the entire team—Hoffmeister and Viano included—to a dinner for all the participants and a tour of the Johnson Space Center.

“At the dinner, our students got to socialize with teams from other schools and with senior Boeing engineers,” says Hoffmeister. “Boeing does a lot of subcontract work for the NASA space shuttle, so the students could actually begin networking, even thinking about job possibilities.”

Long after dinner had settled, the students underwent some preflight physiological training (NASA rules).

“They put you in a steel box and pump down the pressure till it feels like you’re at 25,000 feet, which is basically depriving you of oxygen,” explains Kevin Andring. “Then they take you off of oxygen for five minutes to see how you react and ask you basic questions—grade school arithmetic, the names of the last eight U.S. presidents, all the states that begin with M. I got seven out of eight. We were considered researchers, therefore part of the crew, and had to have this training. If you don’t pass, you don’t get to fly.”

Then there was the Test-Readiness Review in the hangar, which Andring describes as “the most nerve-wracking exam I will ever have until I defend my thesis for my Ph.D. There were a dozen and a half engineers surrounding us saying, ‘That looks bad. Explain it to me.’ And you would have to defend it. They stood there, looking like the Spanish Inquisition, saying, ‘Justify your experiment. Tell me what guards you have in place to ensure that it’s safe. What’s your contingency plan?’ One experiment from another school was not allowed to fly because of safety concerns.”

“Feet down! Coming out!”

The “Weightless Wonder” ascends from 24,000 to 33,000 feet, then drops back to 24,000 feet all in 90 seconds. During this maneuver 25 crucial seconds of weightlessness are created in which the teams— up to five per flight—conduct their experiments. NASA pilots fly the plane. There is no autopilot. It is all done over the Gulf of Mexico with U.S. Coast Guard helicopters hovering nearby at all times.

“Feet down! Coming out!” is the cry of the onboard NASA director when the period of weightlessness is about to end. If you’re caught floating, the sudden gravity will slam you against the floor.

Unexpectedly, Daniel Keedy, the team’s alternate flyer, was the first one to go up. A Texas A&M team member wasn’t able to fly at the last minute, so the Aggies enlisted a Lynx to help with their fluid dynamics experiment. The team needed only five of 30 parabolas to collect its data, leaving Keedy ample time to experience 0g.

“It was a plus because I was able to get a feel for it and give our team some pointers on how to run the experiment,” says Keedy, who is now in the graduate structural biology and biophysics program at Duke University.

The Rhodes team took it all into consideration at its nightly meetings in the hotel room, where they went over every detail of the experiment.

Next to go up were John Janeski and Sean Quinn. Janeski, who boarded the plane wearing sunglasses, found no place to put them, so left them on.

“On the first couple of parabolas, we decided not to do the experiment but just get used to weightlessness,” says Quinn, who is currently in the engineering program at Washington University. Accelerating upward, he felt twice the force of gravity. “I weigh 175 lbs., but at 2g I felt like I weighed 350. I had to work twice as hard to move—eyelids, arms, everything. Your inner ear doesn’t understand what’s going on, and if you move too quickly, you get motion sickness.” Thus the moniker, “vomit comet.” NASA issues motion sickness medicine to all participants before each flight.

“We loaded the launcher during 2g, taking care not to move around too much,” says Janeski. “It’s hard to keep yourself in one spot when you’re floating, so during weightlessness we were strapped down most of the time because we had to be fixed to do our experiment.”

Andring says 0g feels the way modern Chinese martial arts films look.

“In a movie like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, when they’re floating from tree to tree, that’s how it feels,” he says.

To Desmond Campbell, “It’s like swimming in a pool, but you can’t move your arms to propel yourself—you can’t push off air like you can water.”

The sensation remained for a bit with Daniel Keedy.

“The rest of the day of the flight and that night while I was trying to go to sleep, I felt as if things should lift off the ground and float around,” he recalls.

Both Rhodes flights achieved success. The smaller sphere orbited the larger one. Nine months of hard work and teamwork had paid off. The team had thought things through. Their edge: They had "the right stuff."

Orbit

On the first flight, John Janeski and Sean Quinn saw the smaller sphere achieve 1½ orbits around the larger sphere.

For Kevin Andring and Desmond Campbell on the second flight, it went around one full time.

The students manipulated the distance of the sliding launcher to the larger sphere, also taking into consideration the real-time variables of the plane itself such as turbulence and other effects causing fluctuations in microgravity.

“We had hoped for at least one full revolution. It turned out to be even better,” says Prof. Banerjee.

“There were three things the students controlled—how fast they launched the ball, how far away that ball was from the central sphere and how strong the static cling force was between the two spheres,” says Prof. Hoffmeister. “We could use theory to predict what speed, voltages and distances it should be. We kind of impressed ourselves at how close we were.”

Outreach

Thirty percent of this NASA program involves outreach. Participating students agree to go into local schools to talk about their experiences in the program.

“As members of the Rhodes Chapter of the Society of Physics Students, we were doing outreach before we were accepted to the program, at math and science classes and PTA meetings at Springdale Elementary and Cypress Middle schools,” says Desmond Campbell. “We showed them NASA videos about opportunities there. We also taped some demonstrations of what orbits look like and how our small spheres would orbit the large ones. That was all theory. Now we’re showing them our own videos.”

Funding

“NASA gives you flight time on its plane,” according to Prof. Hoffmeister. “It’s a significant amount—about $20,000 per flight, so we got $40,000 of microgravity. The college covered the rest that it took for the team to order materials to build the experiment, then stay in Houston for a week and a half, plus summer stipends for the four students who worked on the project.”

What’s next

“This is a great opportunity for any science student at Rhodes,” says Prof. Hoffmeister. “It’s not just for physics students. In fact, out of the 60 flights that went up, we were one of the few physics groups that participated. I think we could come up with a joint proposal between physics and chemistry or biology. I can foresee us sending a team to Houston every few years and have it be a regular thing.”