“When applying to graduate or professional school, how many students can say they’ve done scientific research at zero Gs?” said Dr. Rachel Smith, faculty advisor to the University of North Carolina Pembroke’s Weightless Lumbees.
Dr. Smith and a four-student contingent had just returned in mid-July from NASA’s Reduced Gravity Education Flight program. Trae Griffin, Molly Musselwhite, Georgianna Revels and Tiffany Scott traveled to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, to board a specially-equipped aircraft that produces 30-second periods of weightlessness through steep dives and ascents.
This is the Weightless Lumbees seventh trip to Houston in 11 years. UNCP was one of 32 universities to be accepted into the NASA program this year.
While bouncing from zero to twice earth’s gravity, the team tended 26 vials to learn how human muscles recover from extreme exercise in outer space. Back in Pembroke, they continued their work by replicating the experiment in a UNCP lab, doing media relations and preparing an outreach program for the public schools, where they will promote STEM sciences.
More humans have climbed Mount Everest than have experienced weightlessness, and the opportunity to do science with NASA is truly unique and life changing too. Yes, the team agreed, weightlessness is as amazing as advertised.
The 2014 edition of the Weightless Lumbees is a unique and outstanding group who defy the stereotype that science is a man’s world. As students, they are fully engaged in STEM studies. Griffin, Musselwhite and Scott are biology majors with ambitions to become healthcare professionals. Revels, who transferred to UNCP from Robeson Community College, is a math education major and mother of two.
In the lab, they talked about the project and the experience. “What we are doing now is recreating exactly the experiments we did in the glove box in zero gravity,” said Musselwhite. “We’re isolating the enzyme right now.”
Musselwhite and Scott were repeat members from the 2013 team, but for Revels, Griffin and Dr. Smith, the experience was brand new. “This was the first time I’ve flown in any aircraft,” said Revels. “First your stomach and insides lift; then your hair. And suddenly, you’re floating. After the second parabola, you get used to it.”
“Honestly?” said Griffin. “It is an overwhelming sense of helplessness. Something may be an inch from your hand, but you can’t reach it. I caught myself trying to swim.”
“It is a very strange feeling,” Dr. Smith said. “Trae hit his head after pushing off from a wall too hard. I know I’ll never look at flying the same way again.”
Dr. Smith and Musselwhite both experienced the discomfort of motion sickness, justifying the “vomit comet” nickname of the aircraft. Turbulence from bad weather didn’t help.
“We can’t complain. Our pilots were the best in the world,” Musselwhite said. “We had astronaut Kenneth Cockrell. He has piloted five space shuttle missions.”
The work continued for the Weightless Lumbees, including public relations. They met with the media and began sorting through photos and video from NASA and from the GoPro camera they carried with them.
“The GoPro worked really well except during 2G (twice earth’s gravity),” Musselwhite said. “I had it strapped to my head, and it slid down my face.”
The team will use the video for publicity and educational outreach as they make conference presentations and talk to elementary school classes. They also took video of a special experiment they performed for school children.
“The water balloon experiment worked well this time,” Griffin said. “It stayed in shape when we punctured it, and you could see it floating in midair.
“When the 30-seconds of zero gravity ends, the balloon pops,” he said. “The idea is to get kids excited about science.”
“As an American Indian, I want to inspire kids to study science, technology engineering and math, the STEM fields. I want Lumbee children in Robeson County to succeed; not be just another statistic.”
Dr. Smith, who is a biochemist, noted that science is serious, and learning about how fluids move in zero gravity is critical to the space program. The weeklong trip was a valuable experience for the Weightless Lumbees, said Dr. Smith, but the entire program is priceless.
“Our students had the opportunity to meet the faculty at the Johnson Space Center as well as network with participating students from other universities,” Dr. Smith said. “It is a very rich experience for students.”
The project requires a year of work from writing the lengthy and detailed NASA proposal to making presentations in schools and at conferences.
“It’s something really special,” Musselwhite said. “I’ve gained so much from the experience. All the conferences I’ve spoken at have given me a lot of confidence.”
All four Weightless Lumbees are from Robeson County are aiming high in their career plans.
Musselwhite is a Lumberton, North Carolina native and a biology major. She graduated in May and is applying to physician assistant programs. She works as a certified nursing assistant at an assisted living facility.
Also from Lumberton, Scott is a senior chemistry major. She is employed as a pharmacy technician at Southeastern Health and aspires to be a pharmacist.
Revels is from McDonald and is a math major. She started college at Robeson Community College, where she was recruited into the Weightless Lumbees, and is a mother of two.
Griffin is also from Lumberton and is a senior biology major. A Marine Reserve, he aspires to attend medical school.