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Weightless wonder

Four local teachers defy gravity in the name of science in NASA's Teaching From Space program
by: SUBMITTED PHOTO Greg Mylet of West Linn, left, and Tom Smith of Hillsboro test if weightlessness affects a cockroach as part of their experiment on board NASA’s Weightless Wonder, a weeklong Teaching From Space program in Houston.

What did you do over summer vacation?

Lake Oswego School District science teachers Greg Mylet, Chris Rodegerdts, Joe Godfrey and Tom Smith have plenty of exciting answers to that question. These men - known as the Science Squad - spent a week at NASA in Houston, participating in the Teaching From Space (TFS) program.

The highlight of the trip: conducting experiments aboard the Weightless Wonder while roller-coastering from 30,000 feet to 21,000 - all in the name of science.

Mylet, Rodegerdts and Godfrey teach science classes at Lake Oswego Junior High School.

Smith teaches physics at Lake Oswego High School, where he also advises the high school's bridge building and science bowl teams. He has been looking for opportunities for the schools to work together on science related projects.

'This was a great tie-in for LOJ and LOHS to work together,' said Mylet, a West Linn resident. 'And Tom's engineering background gave us what we were missing.'

The teachers learned about the program from Portland State University's Mark Weislogel, with whom they have worked on engineering projects. He gave Mylet the nudge, saying the program was 'your kind of project.'

Held to NASA standards

TFS - 'everything is in acronyms,' Mylet said - in partnership with the space administration's RGEF (Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program), provides opportunities to select educator teams across the country to propose, design and fabricate a reduced-gravity experiment, then test and evaluate their experiment aboard the Weightless Wonder.

In laymen's terms, the teachers conducted experiments while the Weightless Wonder flew in perfect parabolas to simulate 0 gravity, 1 g (Earth's gravitational pull) and 2 g's, or twice the Earth's pull.

The teachers were held to the same research and protocol standards required of any NASA program.

'We started brainstorming with the kids on what would be an interesting experiment. It was exacting work,' he said. The process began in November.

'Preparing the paperwork was an amazing amount of work,' Mylet said. 'It was hard work. We submitted a 30-page paper on the project. You had to describe the experiment, discuss any potential hazards and do a structural analysis on the pieces.'

The scientific question the group posed in their experiment was: 'Do things cool more slowly if there is no gravity?'

Electronic and other equipment have heat sinks, or holes from which heat rises, to cool the device and keep it functioning.

'Heat rises,' Mylet said, 'but if there is no gravity, there is no 'up.' If there is no 'up,' the heat won't rise at the back of the equipment.'

And at 2 g's, (twice Earth's gravity) would it cool twice as fast?

LOJ students helped gather about 100 to 150 pieces of data at 1 g, Earth's gravity. Their work helped identify issues that needed to be solved before the teachers took their Weightless Wonder flight.

'We had a computer freeze on us and a camera (at school),' Mylet said.

Simulating what it's like

on the moon and Mars

In Houston, the teachers spent two days preparing their experiment and attending briefings regarding safety and other flight protocol.

'We had to present our final project for review to a panel of NASA engineers,' Mylet said. 'Only when they gave us the final OK could we load for flight.

'Our team of four was divided into two groups of two. Each group of two flew once. Tom and (myself) went first. After the first flight we made adjustments to our experiment protocol. We realized some things were surprisingly difficult to do when you were weightless.

'The rest of the week was spent preparing our presentation of results and reflections on the experience. We also toured NASA facilities and heard presentations from the NASA education office and engineers working on NASA's space suits or EMU - Extravehicular Mobility Unit.'

The Science Squad was assigned a mentor, Mana Vautier, for their stay.

'He was a lot of fun and is very passionate about space and space travel,' Mylet said. 'He works as a contractor for NASA designing computer simulations that model the electrical systems on the International Space Station. Thankfully, he has a good sense of humor and played along with us.'

Mylet described the Weightless Wonder flight itself:

'We were taken up in a 727 with about eight rows of seats in it,' said Mylet. 'the rest of the space was open and padded. We flew for about 15 minutes out over the Gulf of Mexico and then climbed to 30,000 feet and then dropped to 21,000. The jet flew perfect parabolas. For the first two parabolas, we were instructed to just lay down and get used to 2 g's and 0 g's. After the first couple cycles, the teachers began collecting data.

'It was hard to stay planted,' said Mylet. 'Everything floated up. There were straps to hold onto … It was an undescribable sensation. It was a weird state of being.'

The period of time the men were weightless or experiencing 2 g's was about 15 to 20 seconds during each cycle.

The plane also flew through a couple of lunar parabolas and Mars parabolas to simulate what it would be like on the moon and on Mars. The lunar parabola was less steep than the 2 g's, while Mars experiences .34 g's, which Mylet described as 'super light. It has some gravity but not enough.'

As a side experiment, the teachers took with them on the flight a cockroach, so they could see how it reacted to weightlessness.

And, athough he said it was hard to collect, Mylet said the Science Squad came back with good data.

Mylet would not share the results of the experiment, as that is for the students to discover this year in science classes.

Many of them kept track of the teachers' adventure via Facebook. Both teachers and students said they are anxious to get back to school to discuss the results of the experiment. Mylet said he expects they will dive into the experiment reports to discover 'a) did we find anything? And b) What did we learn and what would we have learned with further (study)?'

Needless to say, the Science Squad is excited about its adventure, and that enthusiasm will likely make science come to life for its students this year and for many years to come. The teachers are, in fact, already talking about going back for more TFS / RGEF adventures.

'We're already talking about it,' Mylet said. 'But we are also excited about sharing this experience with our students and with the Oregon Science Teachers Association.'