Contact: Michael D. Mason (207) 581-2344; Tom Weber (207) 581-3777; Bob Caswell (207) 780-4200
ORONO — Now that NASA has cleared them for takeoff, student scientists from the University of Maine and the University of Southern Maine are eagerly preparing for the flight of their lives.
And while the four students won’t actually be going into space, they’ll have the chance to experience the next best thing — floating in near-zero gravity in a modified jetliner while performing experiments that could benefit astronauts of the future.
UMaine’s Michael Browne, a sophomore chemical engineering major, and Benjamin Freedman, majoring in both chemical and biological engineering, are teaming up with USM first-year biology major John Wise Jr., the team leader, and Adam Courtemanche, a senior information technology major, to participate in NASA’s Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program in Houston July 10-19.
The team, the first ever from Maine, is one of 40 from around the country selected this year by NASA, which awards the coveted slots based on the merit of the students’ research proposals. After their training and physical tests, the Maine team will carry out in-flight experiments to measure the response of human lung cells to certain toxicants that are known to damage DNA. The tests will determine whether microgravity and hypergravity affect the cellular uptake of the chemicals, and create differences in the amount of chemical-induced DNA damage and repair.
The students believe the information could aid NASA in engineering safer manned space flights in the future.
“Aside from the science opportunities, this program helps increase public awareness of NASA and also gets promising young scientists interested in the kind of work it does,” says Michael Mason, a UMaine assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering and one of two mentors for the project. Mason and co-mentor and research collaborator John Wise Sr., director of USM’s Wise Laboratory for Environmental and Genetic Toxicology, will travel to Houston as part of the project’s ground crew.
Also on the ground crew are James Wise, first-year USM chemistry major and alternate flyer, and Nick Link, a senior at South Portland High School.
With all of their laboratory equipment prepped and secured, the students will fly aboard an airplane dubbed the “Weightless Wonder.” The plane will perform parabolic maneuvers over the Gulf of Mexico, soaring from 24,000 feet to 34,000 feet and screaming back down again.
The students will experience 30 seconds of hypergravity (up to 2g, higher than on Earth) as the plane climbs to the top of the parabola. Once the plane starts to “nose over” the top of the parabola and dive toward Earth, the students will experience 25 seconds of near-zero microgravity. The plane will do this 30 times in one flight, which is why it is also affectionally known as the “Vomit Comet.”
While NASA absorbs all flight and training costs, the Maine team is responsible for about $10,000 in travel and personal expenses. The Maine Space Grant Consortium has already agreed to fund half the amount, says Mason, who is confident the team can raise the rest.
“This is such a great and rare opportunity for the students,” Mason says. “I just wish I could go up with them. I even thought about re-registering as a student, but no such luck.”