Final Day at Ellington

Flight Day Friday

Today we swiped in with our official Ellington badges for the last time.  It was very sad, and kind of nostalgic.

Oh, and team A2 flew in the Weighless Wonder!  Also important.

It begins.

While the new ground crew (team A1) twiddled our thumbs watching an online map with the plane teetering on the edge of  Mexico’s airspace (“Don’t worry researchers, if the plane crashes, the Mexican government will come find us!”), team A2 (Mary, Danyelle, and Simona) flew forty parabolas in record time.

The good news: team A2 managed to do a lot of our required outreach!  There was much filming!

Outreach Champions.  Trophies not distributed.  (Left to right: Danyelle, Mary, Simona).

The bad news: The box jammed after the third parabola!  And no data was taken!  And red dust escaped!  And the blue-suits in charge put our adorable box in a plastic garbage bag to contain the damage!  Everything sounds better when you add an exclamation point to the end of it!


So basically, our two teams were rather bisected: Team A1 did the research portion and team A2 did the outreach portion.

Team A1 *wishes* they were still puking for science.

When we removed our equipment from the plane, and unwrapped and unscrewed the box, we found this:Gremlins.  Clearly, it was gremlins.

Here is our hypothesis: during the first flight, any time the second iris opened in very low gravity, some dust escaped, but during the 1 and 2 gravity times, it was unable to escape back down to the bottom compartment.  Eventually, there was too much dust and the bottom iris jammed just open enough to let more dust out – causing a shutdown of the entire operation.

The moral of the story:  Clean out your science box.

This message is Christina Approved.

Towards one o’clock we packed everything up, turned in our security badges, and bid Ellington – and the microgravity program farewell.

Worth one access badge to exclusive NASA flight hangar.

. . . For this year, at least!

We still don’t have the official NASA pictures or videos from either of the flights, but here are some pictures from Thursday’s flight, taken by Tamra.  Thanks, Tamra!

Agitating the soil in 0-G.


Straps can barely contain her.


Actually extremely frustrated that people keep floating in front of the G-counter.

Taking measurements

Not entirely sure which way it up, Christina grabs a handhold from both top and bottom.

Hannah and Alice taking a white reference for the spectrometer.

Thanks for reading!  More pictures and video to follow eventually!

-Hannah and the BMC micro-G team

Flight Day!

Flight Day – And Delay.

According to the original schedule, team A1 was intended to fly Wednesday morning.  According to the laws of irony, Wednesday morning at about 7:48 am was precisely the time for the top iris on the box to jam.  With all the panic owed to the occasion, we screwed off the top, blew off some dust, and then re-screwed some bits that had fallen out. The box bides its time. Waiting.

Still running on the sort of vague adrenaline high born purely from utter terror, Group A1 made our way to the briefing room for our pre-flight briefing.  About twenty minutes in, we were informed that, due to the massive storm building over the Gulf, we would not be flying that day.  The fact that the air over Houston was completely clear, was of course intended to taunt us.

“Now the best part – taking everything you just did, down!”

So instead, we removed our equipment from the plane, and went to Space Center Houston.  The touristy one.  It was very . . . there were many children in matching shirts.  There was a tram ride to see the old Mission Control room, and there was a touching film that might have been about space travel but also about international cooperation on a very large screen.  The music was very inspirational.  Even the dust in this room is both inspiring and patriotic.

Later that afternoon, there was sort of fancy teleconference with a group from Hawaii, who called in to NASA to talk about gathering lunar sediment samples from the bottom of the ocean.  And finally, our mentor, Tamra, invited us over to her home for a spectacular spaghetti dinner.  Thanks, Tamra!


 Thursday dawned sunny.  Much like Wednesday.  As we got to Ellington Field for the 7:45 morning briefing however, we were informed that this time, the morning flight was on!

One of these people helps the vomit comet live up to its name.  But BMC Geology doesn’t barf and tell.

Team A1 (Christina, Alice, our mentor Tamra, and myself) showed up to the briefing room for the pre-flight briefing and the nausea meds, fully suited up and ready to go.  We received injections (or took pills, depending on needle tolerance), anxiously waited to visit the restroom until the absolute last, last, last, minute – there is a fine balance to being hydrated and not having to pee every hour – and boarded the plane!

After the first 5 or so minutes of normal flight, all teams were given the go-ahead to start setting up our equipment.  We took the spectrometer and soil box out of some locking yellow bins, and strapped everything to the floor.  Why strap everything to the floor?  Because we had to worry about it floating away and that was a really weird variable to even need to think about when designing this experiment in the first place.  (“Oh no this won’t work at all because it’s going to float one way, we’ll fly off in the opposite direction, and then when the gravity comes back on it will fall and hit someone in the head and then NASA won’t let us on their planes anymore.”)

  At take-off, flight is deceptively normal.

Once we were over the Gulf, it was time for the parabolas to start.  To get to Zero-G, you must first go through hypergravity – specifically, 2-G’s of it.  And that, is weird.  2-G is like all those times when you’re sick and you think you’re lifting your head or your arm but really you’re not, and at the same you’re also walking through very thick mud and it’s a good thing there aren’t any crocodiles chasing you because there is no way you would ever get away.  The weight presses down on every part of you, and it’s a really good thing we didn’t have to agitate the soil in the box in 2-G because our team would have needed to add a weightlifter to the roster.

After 2-G however, there is about a two second long transition, and suddenly up is down and you’re falling really fast but, since you can’t see the outside, it just feels like you’re floating.  For about twenty seconds, we got to stick our proverbial tongues out at gravity (or at least, our perception of it) and play at being able to fly.  Sometimes we played at being really confused as to the location of the floor of the plane, and whether or not we had, in fact, just narrowly avoided falling on our equipment when gravity came back to normal.

After a few parabolas to get used to the sensation, we strapped ourselves to the floor, and commenced with what we were actually supposed to be doing: taking spectra.

During the 32 Zero-G parabolas, we had to time our spectra measurements to about a second after the no gravity started heading back into micro-gravity.  The gravity changed very quickly, so we ended up with a range of microgravity spectra measurements, not just those from Mars.  Our best data likely came from the four specifically Lunar and Martian gravity parabolas near the end.  Tamra ended up taking over for one of our teammates when she became horribly ill, but in the end, we had the data.

After a total of 2.1 flight hours, we landed back at Ellington, content in the knowledge that every other plane ride for the rest of our lives is likely to be incomparably dull.


Team A2 was scheduled to fly that afternoon, but storms were once more brewing over the Gulf.  Their flight has now been moved to Friday morning.  Once again, let’s hope the weather holds!

As always, thanks for reading.

-Hannah and the Bryn Mawr Geology Microgravity Team

PS we don’t yet have footage of the flying, since NASA took most of it (we didn’t bring cameras on board) and we won’t get that for a few days, but we will hopefully get some from Tamra tomorrow. ^_^


NASA Hangar 990: Day 2

The majority of the morning was spent preparing for the Test Readiness Review (TRR).  Everything (and I mean absolutely everything) our team was planning to bring up in the plane had to be on our table, with us ready to explain its purpose.

(“Wait, what did we need this box for again?”)

As 10:30 am rolled around, about twenty official looking people crowded around us to ask what exactly we were doing, and if it was hazardous.  There were clipboards, and a video camera.  There were questions.  There were special amounts of concern for the Mars Soil Simulant, because it getting loose in the plane would be all kinds of disastrous.  However, everything got all worked out in the end, and we passed!

(Heroic toasts of victory not shown.)

After the TRR, Mary and Christina ended up being the first to see the inside of the Weightless Wonder, as they brought all of our equipment over to the plane and began to set it up.

(“And if you observe very closely, the keenest among you might spot a subtle reminder as to the plane’s intended role”)

Later on, first flight team one (Christina, Alice, Tamra our mentor, and myself) investigated the set-up.  Team two followed quickly after, before we were all herded to briefing room 993 to talk about how not to get sick!  There was video.

Oh, also we received our flightsuites.  That is also kind of important.

(Left to right: Christina, Alice, Mary, Hannah, Simona, Danyelle)

We have to give them back after the flight, unfortunately.

(Above: Not at all opposed to giving the suits back ASAP)

Weather, technology, and general health willing, team A1 will fly tomorrow!

Thanks for reading!

-Hannah and the rest of the Microgravity Team

Microgravity Week Begins!

Houston Day 5 – aka Official Start of Microgravity Week

6:15 am:  Awaken

6:50 am: Depart hotel for Johnson Space Center

6:53 am: Take wrong turn

6:59 am: Narrowly avoid death by freeway

7:20 am: Somehow manage to report ten minutes early (twenty minutes if going by “Bryn Mawr Time”) to Johnson Space Center for badging and orientation!

After we got our official badges (although the physical descriptions need a bit of work – apparently I am 6 feet tall and have brown eyes), we sat through physio-training.  All manner of potential health problems and issues were covered, including hypoxia, hyperventilation, and of course the most infamous: nausea.

 (They’re already nauseous and they haven’t even looked at the plane yet.)

Finally, we reported to hanger 990 in Ellington Field – our science home for the next week, and current resting place of the “old” DC9.

(Above: Rarely Seen Ancient Flying Device.)

There were more briefings.  Many, many briefings.

(We’re smiling because if we don’t then we’re afraid they’ll make us go to more meetings.)

In Summary:

1)   Never ever be late.  Ever.

2)   Keep track of all things.

3)   No, seriously.  Don’t lose anything or we’ll have to take the plane apart looking for it.

4)   You are here for research.  Not for play.

5)   No pictures of military goings on (They have guns).

6)   No self guided tours.

7)   The schedule is disturbingly dependant on the rather fickle entities of both weather and technology.  Be flexible.

(The most dependable piece of equipment is the one that involves shaking dirt in a box.  I love science.)

So far, the plan is 4 parabolas in Lunar gravity, 4 in Martian, and the rest in Zero-G.

While part of the team were at various meetings of import, the rest of the team set up the equipment under the guidance of our extraordinarily patient NASA mentor, Tamra George.  In return for her kindness, we vow to feed her various unhealthy yet delicious snacks for the entirety of the week.

(Like Charlie’s Angles except everything is 100% more breakable.)

We tested the probe and box combo, panicked over the brief life of the spectrometer batteries, fawned over the box, attempted to recall computer operations, and ate a whole pack of mint Oreos in less than five hours.

(Snacks not pictured.)

Around 4pm we packed up the spectrometer and the box, dropped them off at the hotel (after warning the management that they were, in fact, pieces of research equipment and not nefarious devices of mass murder) and headed off to a Meet Everyone Ever dinner at Bullritos.  We met the teams from UC Boulder, Utah State University, Deleware Technical and Community College, and the Pre-Service Teacher Institute.

Upon return to the hotel, we met again for a discussion of All Things That Might Go Wrong, and set out a game plan for tomorrow’s Test Readiness Review (aka Is Your Experiment Going To Kill Us All) conducted by people with the power to ground our research.  Basically, If we don’t pass the TRR, our experiment won’t fly, so wish us luck!

As always, thanks for reading!

-Hannah and the rest of the Microgravity Team

Houston – Day 2


Day Two

Still lacking two crucial team members, or anything official to do (recall: sudden schedule change), today’s goings on were entirely un-official.  At breakfast we coincidentally met the team advisors for the project for Delaware Technical & Community College, and discussed projectile motion (their project) and porosity (our project).

A morning pool visit was interrupted by a thunderstorm.  Most of the time was thus spent admiring the cross-bedding ( and casts of wood ( in the sandstone wall around the pool.  With the continual threat of thunderstorms hanging over our heads, we opted to go to the movies instead of to downtown Houston.  So, a team of women representing an elite women’s college in the sciences spent their free time watching a film about male strippers.

(Above: such innocent smiles . . . what could they possibly be thinking about?)

And then spent an hour looking at the rocks in the parking lot.

(Above: geologists engaged in completely non-suspicious behavior in a deserted parking lot.)

Towards the end of the day, we drove to the Kemah boardwalk, ate pizza and ice cream, saw catfish and dolphins . . .

. . . and watched an America-themed fireworks show.

(Above: AMERICA.)

Thanks for reading!

(Top row: Alice, Simona, and Danyelle.  Bottom Row: Christina, me (Hannah), Jaws).

Houston – Day 1



As of day one of our outer space adventure, five team members – Simona, Christina, Alice, Danyelle and myself (Hannah) have arrived safely in Houston.  Additionally, all of our equipment has also arrived safely in Houston, including the $80,000 Field Spectrometer (“You are not checking the spectrometer.  Carry it on.” – Selby) and, somewhat more astonishingly, the simulated Mars regolith containment box.  We were all a bit nervous – and by nervous I might actually mean terrified – because the fake Mars soil box looks less like one would imagine a piece of awesomely designed scientific equipment to look like, and more like a bomb.

(Pictured below: Not actually an explosive device).

(Above: Danyelle.  And $80,000 in science form.)

However, armed with a letter typed up for our benefit by Dr. Pedro Marenco on the most official looking of Bryn Mawr College letterhead, as well as the blueprints for the box, everything made it through.  We collected our super classy seven-person van, and checked in at the hotel.  It is a mystery how all our suitcases and equipment will fit for the return trip.  Possibly the youngest members of our crew will be obliged to ride on the roof.

 (Above: They can hardly contain their excitement.)

About two weeks ago, we received word that the program was now going to start on Monday and end on Friday.  Unable to change our flights, we now have three extra days of hanging around in Houston.  Likely we will use this time to prefect our spectrometer technique, further study the mysteries of the Hapke Model, and also eat (tonight: Tex-mex – Tomorrow: BBQ?).

Before this blog post concludes, we would just like to give a big shout out of thanks to Richard Willard at the BMC Machine Shop for helping us with the final design, as well as building the box.  We’d also like to thank Peter Mahr of Portland, OR, for his help with the initial box design.

Thanks!  More tomorrow!

Check out Baldwin’s blog…

A few months back, our team presented to the 9th grade Physics classes at Baldwin School for Girls. We explained our project, NASA’s microgravity program, and various opportunities to the students where they can also become involved with microgravity research. Check out their blog covering the event:


Our team will be heading to Houston in less than a week! Follow our blog as we chronicle our journey while at Johnson Space Center!