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The BBC's Richard Lister
Richard tries weightlessness with students
 real 28k

Thursday, 25 May, 2000, 10:26 GMT 11:26 UK
Riding the 'Vomit Comet'
An astronaut walks in simulated weightlessness
All astronauts have been through the training
By the BBC's Richard Lister over the Johnson Space Center in Texas

Hands up all those who had a childhood dream to be an astronaut.

Those who actually make it into space are perhaps the most envied elite in the world, but the American space administration Nasa is always on the lookout for new recruits and has devised a programme to give students with an interest in space research a chance to experience weightlessness.
The modified KC-135 takes off
Nasa uses a modified KC-135 Stratotanker

Training for such missions begins in a special Nasa aircraft that can create conditions close to zero-gravity. Every US astronaut from the first man on the Moon to the last woman in the space shuttle has been here.

Among them, is British-born Nick Patrick. He is training to be a spaceman, and has now had his first taste of weightlessness.

"Everything you take for granted on Earth just isn't the case up there," he said.

"Things will get away from you. It's hard to get a grip on anything and move it around so it's quite a challenge for training," he said.

Vomit Comet

But you do not have to be an astronaut to try out weightlessness. For eight weeks a year, Nasa lets college students use the training plane to do their own minimal-gravity experiments.
A space centre employee hands out air sickness bags
Students receive air sickness bags for the flight

Weightlessness can be a gruelling experience, especially for students experiencing it for the first time. And the plane is not called the "Vomit Comet" for nothing.

"They are our future. When we go back to the Moon, when we go on to Mars and other far reaches of the Universe, these are the people that are going to be doing it," said John Yaniec with Nasa's Reduced Gravity Programme.

The students will only get a two-hour flight on which to test their projects, and each experiment has to be carefully loaded and installed.

There are nine on this trip.

This one, from the University of Alabama uses a laser to make tiny lenses far more accurately than can be done on Earth.

"By doing experiments on this plane, it gives students an experience of a lifetime, said Ousama Abushagur from the University of Alabama.

The plane simulates the micro-gravity of Earth orbit without the expense and training necessary for space flight, he said.

Free falling
Person floating in the cabin of the 'Vomit Comet'
Trying out the weightless experience

To achieve weightlessness, the plane first climbs steeply, putting twice the force of gravity on its passengers.

Then the engines are cut and the plane dives so rapidly that everyone on board goes into free fall.

The experience lasts about 25 seconds and then gravity returns as the plane levels out and begins its climb again.

The process is repeated 30 times to give the students enough time to get as much data as they need.

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See also:

24 Jan 00 | Sci/Tech
Hubble is 'better than new'
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What future for the space station?
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