Luckily, NASA doesn't have to spend millions of dollars sending prototypes into space just to see if they'll work. Much of that can be done a lot closer to the Earth's surface. The Reduced Gravity Office at the Johnson Space Center in Houston is home to NASA's own flying, microgravity laboratory, "The Weightless Wonder." It's every bit as incredible as the name suggests. Earlier this spring, Gizmodo got a call from Zach Barbeau, an engineering undergrad at Oklahoma State University. His team had been selected—with a handful of others from different colleges and universities—to fly their proposed experiments onboard NASA's famous zero gravity plane. They were allowed to invite one reporter. Did I want to go? Did I ever. NASA's Reduced Gravity Office has been an institution at the Johnson Space Center since 1959. It was used to support the Mercury missions, then Gemini, then Apollo, all the way through Skylab, the Shuttle program, and today's International Space Station initiatives. During that time, the custom planes have made more than 100,000 microgravity dives to support the training and testing associated with these missions. A microgravity dive is a parabolic arc wherein the plane dives at the same speed at which you fall—so within the plane's enclosed cabin, it looks and feels like you're just floating. NASA calls their plane the Weightless Wonder. For all intents and purposes, the planes NASA uses are off the shelf. For the last while they've been using a KC-135A turbojet, but I got especially lucky while I was there. The turbojet was having some problems, so instead they resurrected an older C-9, one of the original Weightless Wonders. The interior is slightly smaller than the KC, but boy does it provide a smooth ride. The exteriors of these planes don't need to modified in any meaningful way. The stresses imparted onto the airframe during the dives and rapid climbs are all well within their designed tolerances. The real special sauce is on the inside. There are only about 20 seats, all of which are at the rear of the plane. From there to the cockpit, it's all laboratory. Every surface of the lab—the floor, walls, and ceiling—are padded with what seem to be white gym mats. This greatly improves safety, because you are absolutely going to hit your head (and everything else) until you figure out what you're doing. Under the mats are intricate systems that allow you to bolt various items (palates full of lab experiments, for example) to the floor, so they won't float away. The windows are all shuttered during flight, because the illusion of placidly floating is most definitely ruined if you can see that in actuality, you're falling out of the sky, and quickly. In lieu of windows, the cabin is outfitted with photographic lighting throughout, which provides a nice, even light. I was brought in for the Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program's annual flight week. The RGEFP has been a part of the Reduced Gravity Office since 1995, and since then every year it's given students (and teachers) a chance to propose, design, build, test, and fly a microgravity experiment on a plane run by the Reduced Gravity Office. This is how it earned the moniker Microgravity University. This year NASA's guidelines were that the experiments should focus on improving human spaceflight, and I was coming along to see it in action. More via Gizmodo.
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