home   home

“Houston, We Have a Solution”

USU Student Researchers Conduct Successful Experiment aboard NASA

“Vomit Comet”

FROM TEXAS STATE HIGHWAY 3, Houston's historic Ellington Field looks nondescript. Yet the flat expanse of coastal prairie, which lies just west of Galveston Bay, has been the training site of intrepid flyers ranging from pre–World War aviators to shuttle astronauts for more than 90 years. At 8 a.m. the sun is already hot and the air thick with the Gulf Coast's wet–blanket humidity. Waves of heat shimmer from F–16 fighter jets that taxi along the tarmac.

Nine members of USU's Get Away Special (GAS) student team have ventured to Houston and I've come along on the trip as team journalist. The Aggie team is among 14 university groups from across the nation selected to participate in NASA's Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program. Known as “Microgravity University,” the prestigious program challenges students to conduct an experiment of their own design in zero gravity.

We arrive at NASA Hangar 990 and there it is: NASA's gleaming DC–9 microgravity airplane, infamously known as the ‘Vomit Comet.’ In just a few days, several of us will board a similar aircraft and experience true weightlessness.

Over the hum of fans and the roar of jet aircraft, NASA personnel welcome us aboard and remind us that, for the next week and a half, we'll be working near an active flight line. No wandering from our designated area.

USU's team, mostly undergraduates, includes flyers Andrew Fassmann, Justin Koeln, Frank McCown, Troy Munro and Travyn Mapes, along with ground crew members Stephanie Peterson, Rob Barnett, Cameron Peterson and graduate student Phil Anderson, the team's leader.

The Aggies carefully unload their painstakingly constructed project, called “Follow–up Nucleate Boiling On–flight Experiment” or FUNBOE, from a wooden crate. They discover that the subtropical heat has already loosened some of the experiment's watertight seals and dispatch a team member to fetch silicone caulk.

“We think bathroom caulk was the best choice given that the climate inside a hot shower was the closest thing we could think of to the climate inside this hangar,” Rob says.

“The GAS program enables undergrads to get a hands–on experience second to none. It's not limited to physicists and engineers, but to anyone who wants to experience real–world teamwork, problem solving and dreaded deadlines, along with gaining enthusiasm for a lifetime.
— Jan Sojka, Head USU Department of Physics

Duct tape, an engineer's secret weapon, is used to cover sharp edges.

“NASA doesn't like blood,” Stephanie says.


The USU team is attempting to answer fundamental questions about boiling water. When you boil water on earth where there's gravity, bubbles rise. But what happens when you boil water in space?

“On Earth, buoyancy and gravity–driven convection pretty much dominates everything,” says Justin, a 2010 Goldwater Scholar and leader of the team's experiment. “In space, the overall behavior of the bubbles changes drastically.”

The students' question isn't just an idle exercise in scientific inquiry.

Ambitious plans for long–duration space travel to Mars and beyond will require high–tech thermal management solutions that can handle the heat of large electronics systems, Justin says. “If you can boil water in space as an effective means of dissipating heat, you could really revolutionize what's possible in space.”

The Aggie team's experiment builds on a previous USU experiment flown aboard Space Shuttle Endeavour in 2001. Developed by Utah State's then–GAS team and students from Utah's Box Elder High School, the initial experiment captured just enough data to whet the researchers' appetites.

“We all got pretty excited about what we saw from the 2001 experiment,” Justin says. “The videos showed that the bubbles would randomly shoot off from the wire heating element and hover in the fluid.”

Those findings intrigued the team because they run counter to classroom theory and similar experiments. Theory predicts that as gravity goes to zero, so does heat transfer.


Adhering to NASA's strict specifications, the students opt to construct small, cube–like, clear containers milled from a polycarbonate material to serve as fluid chambers or “boiling cells.” Each cell, fitted with a thin, platinum wire that functions as a boiling element, will hold a few ounces of water. Flat, pocket–sized video cameras attach to the outside of the cells to record the experiment. The cells fit into two metal toolboxes purchased from a local hardware store. Connected together, the toolboxes will float in mid–air aboard the NASA airplane.

“It took a lot of effort from all members of the team,” Phil says. “We worked on our own volunteer time to pull this complex project together.”

Preparing an experiment fulfilled only one of NASA's requirements for participation in Microgravity University. The space agency also requires its participants to share their experience through community outreach — especially to kids. Before touching down in Houston, the team made presentations to more than 1,000 young students in Cache Valley and beyond.

“We got to see a lot of kids and they actually got really excited about science, which is refreshing because a lot of people aren't very excited about math and science nowadays,” Phil says.

The experiment's outreach activities are what initially brought Stephanie, an aspiring science teacher and her husband, Cameron, a grad student in management information systems, to the NASA project.

“Before each demonstration, we'd ask the students how many of them were interested in science or engineering and we'd get just a few hands,” Stephanie says. “Afterward, we'd ask the kids again and we saw twice as many hands go up.”


The team's experience of repeatedly explaining their experiment to groups of schoolchildren and being pummeled with insistent questions prepares them well. Before loading their experiment onto the plane, the students undergo the same scrutiny as any NASA contractor. A team of NASA scientists and engineers arrive at Hangar 990 for the USU experiment's Test Readiness Review, known as the “TRR.”

The reviewers grill the USU team: Is the experiment safe and ready for flight? Will boiling water escape and burn the fliers?

Their inquiry continues: Will the experiment's fluid chambers or “cells” inadvertently ‘escape’ and be lost in the aircraft during zero g? Their question is no small concern. Errant parts floating in microgravity have wandered throughout the aircraft, including in landing gear wheel wells.

Another concern is the weight of the toolboxes that will float in space. On Earth, this part of the experiment weighs about 50 lbs. The reviewers remind the students that during the 2g portions of the flight, the floating portion will weigh twice as much and could inflict injury when gravity is restored and the unit suddenly drops toward the plane's floor.

With the reviewers satisfied, the team breathes a sigh of relief. Andrew proudly displays a yellow legal pad where he's written: “Things that need to be fixed.” The list is empty.

From the test review, the team weighs the experiment and carries the 150–lb. project to a forklift to be loaded onto the aircraft. It's our first chance to get a look inside the plane. Seats occupy only the rear portion of the cabin. It is otherwise empty and padded for microgravity flight. It resembles a padded cell and we joke that we must be crazy to be going on this flight.

Baking on the hot tarmac, the plane isn't air–conditioned. Sweat drips from the students as they quickly bolt the experiment into place.


In addition to preparing the experiment for the rigors of microgravity flight, those of us flying must undergo several days of training at NASA's astronaut training facility. After extensive physiological lectures, we enter a hyperbaric chamber for high altitude training. The chamber allows us to experience, first hand, the effects of an oxygen–deficient environment. The microgravity aircraft will be pressurized but, like all NASA fliers, we have to be prepared for an in–flight emergency.

Fitted with olive–green head gear and oxygen masks, we file into a windowed cylindrical chamber that reminds me of a diving bell. Accompanied by NASA technicians, we take our assigned seats and receive a number by which we'll be addressed during the training. Now known as “Number 1,” “Number 2” and so forth, we began breathing 100 percent oxygen to rid our bodies of nitrogen in preparation for our rapid ascent to 25,000 ft.

The unfamiliar mask feels heavy and claustrophobic and I resist the urge to panic as I struggle to draw breaths. Speaking through an intercom system attached to each of our headsets, a NASA instructor explains that inhaling and exhaling with the pressure–demand breathing system requires extra effort. Our heavy breathing is normal. She calms our fears, urges us to trust the equipment and carefully explains each step of the training process.

“They drop the air pressure from sea level to 25,000 ft. in about six minutes and during that you can see the whole chamber turn into a foggy cloud,” Frank says.

Once we reach altitude, we'll be asked to remove our masks for up to five minutes. In the oxygen–thin environment, we'll experience the effects of hypoxia or oxygen deprivation. We've learned that typical symptoms include numbness, mental confusion, tunnel vision and an emotional state that can range from euphoria to belligerence.

With our feet still on the ground, we reach maximum altitude. We're divided into two groups: Everyone in my group is given pencils and clipboards with a simple written test with questions ranging from “Name the last 10 presidents” to “List all the U.S. states that begin with the letter ‘M’.” We remove our masks, while the second group watches.

Seconds into our test, I hear one of the technicians say, “Oops, we just lost him!” He and another instructor grab a student on my left and put his mask back on. The student quickly comes to but doesn't remember what happened.

I'm glad I was assigned to the first group, I think to myself. Had I witnessed that as part of the second group, I might have refused to take off my mask.

Troy, known as “Number 9,” is determined to finish his test and almost lists Mexico as a state even though he knows it's the wrong answer. The NASA instructor breaks in over the intercom.

“Wow, Number 9 is focused! Is he always this focused?”

Troy flashes the thumbs up sign and returns to his test.

“I felt a little weird and felt my fingers go numb,” he says. “I put the mask back on at five minutes and felt like I was waking up from a weird dream.”

Andrew realizes that hypoxia isn't a new sensation for him.

“After I took my mask off, I remembered that I'd felt like this before — right after donating blood,” he says.