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In mid July four recent graduates of Dartmouth had a truly buoyant experience at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. The newly minted alumni, led by Stephanie Feldman from Fairfax, Calif., flew aboard NASA's Weightless Wonder, a KC135 aircraft that simulates weightlessness.
Feldman and classmates Lea Kiefer, Chelsea Morgan, and Lauren Talbot, developed DREAM, Dartmouth Resistance Exercises for Antigravity Muscles. They were convinced that DREAM could keep important muscles in shape even if those muscles were in people floating for long periods of time in a space shuttle or on a space station. To test their theory, they submitted their proposal and were one of 69 teams chosen to participate in the 2004 Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program.
The group had a little inside information about space flight; their faculty guide on this project was Jay Buckey, an associate professor at Dartmouth Medical School and an astronaut who flew aboard the space shuttle Columbia in 1998. Buckey, who also studies the physiological effects of long-term space flight, accompanied the team to Texas for their mission aboard the KC135.
Feldman reported that, in order to achieve weightlessness, the aircraft ascended to 20,000 to 30,000 feet, and then went through a series of dives and climbs to create 20- to 30-second periods of weightlessness along with 30-second periods of increased gravity (2Gs). (For comparison, the gravity on earth equals 1G.) Each flight had 30 rounds of weightlessness and one round each of lunar gravity (1/6G) and Martian gravity (1/3G).
Feldman said the DREAM experiments were a success. "We managed to complete all of the exercises we designed and successfully recorded muscle activation," she wrote in an e-mail about her experience. In describing the sensation of weightless she wrote, "I pushed off and sailed effortlessly through the air crashing into the other side of the cabin in a fit of amazed laughter. It was like flying except you just were there -- hanging in the air. Every time I touched anything I went sailing in the other direction. At one point I curled up in a ball and had a few people spin me in endless circles. Another time Chelsea and I sat on the floor cross-legged facing each other and holding hands. We closed our eyes during the 2G part of the parabola and when we opened them we were floating upside down in the middle of the cabin."
Feldman was enthusiastic about the program. "It was one of the most breathtaking experiences of my life. And basically since we landed I have been trying to think of a way to do it again."
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