Getting kids interested in math and science is an oft-cited rationale for spending huge sums of taxpayer money on human spaceflight, but a private-sector initiative that gives teachers a chance to experience weightlessness first-hand is poised to steal some of that thunder.
With time and proper nurturing, the Northrop Grumman-sponsored Weightless Flights of Discovery program has the potential to influence the lives of thousands of young people who otherwise might be pulled in other directions, not all of them positive.
This is not intended as a knock on the space shuttle or space station programs, but let’s face it – neither has come anywhere close to inspiring young people the way the Apollo lunar sorties did in the 1960s. Northrop Grumman and partner Zero Gravity Corp. (Zero-G), one the other hand, are onto something that can be part of the solution to industry-wide concerns about where the next generation of aerospace engineering talent is going to come from.
For those unfamiliar with the program, Weightless Flights of Discovery puts teachers aboard G-Force One, Zero-G’s modified Boeing 727 aircraft that flies a pattern of parabolas that provide 30-second periods of weightlessness. One might call it enlightened self-interest on Northrop Grumman’s part: The idea is that the teachers will catch the microgravity bug and pass it along to their students, who in turn would be inspired to pursue careers in aerospace and related fields.
Judging from the reaction of a group of Washington-area teachers who
– along with a few, mostly lucky journalists – participated in the first of two G-Force One flights out of Washington Dulles International Airport Sept. 13, it was mission accomplished on the first objective. Inside the cabin, giddiness gave way to exuberance as G-Force One went into the first of 15 gravity-nullifying dives – 12 of which simulated zero gravity. By the time the aircraft began heading back to the airport
, euphoria had set in.
Many of the teachers carried aboard experiments to be used in lesson plans back in the classroom. But mostly they carried cameras and video recorders: G-Force One was more playground than laboratory, a place where adults could do somersaults without consequence, slurp globules of water out of midair and literally toss one another across the aircraft’s fuselage. It was the sum of the experience – that “unbelievable feeling,” as one put
it – that the teachers
would undoubtedly try to
convey to their students.
Weightless Flights of Discovery is in the middle of its second year and, as with any relatively new program, has some kinks to iron out, particularly in terms of getting the message out. The application deadline for the Sept. 13 flights had to be extended to fill the available space, for example, and some of the teachers said they found out about the opportunity purely by chance. Among the 55 teachers who flew that day, there was only one from the perpetually troubled District of Columbia public school system, whose students, a significant percentage of whom
come from disadvantaged backgrounds, represent that hard-to-reach population that needs this type of program the most.
Then there is the question of whether G-Force One flight opportunities can be extended to the students themselves. Part of the reason Weightless Flights of Discovery is a teacher-only experience is
simple efficiency: For every teacher that flies, dozens of students can in theory be reached. But the chance to actually ride on what for all intents and purposes is the world’s biggest roller coaster is bound to inspire young people in ways that even the best educators simply cannot.
If thousands of students can take school-sponsored trips to amusement parks each year – and they do – there is no reason
that they should not be able to enjoy similar thrills aboard G-Force One
and gain an appreciation for science at the same time.
Perhaps Northrop Grumman could hold regional competitions where students who write the best essays or propose the most intriguing experiments are given the chance to fly. This is the kind of opportunity that is bound to bring out the best in any kid with a sense of wonder and taste for adventure.
By sponsoring the Weightless Flights of Discovery, meanwhile, Northrop Grumman is not only helping students, and ultimately itself; it is giving a welcome shot in the arm to the entrepreneurial space industry. Zero-G, after all, is in it for the money. An anchor customer like Northrop Grumman can spell the difference between survival and bankruptcy for a startup venture with high capital-expenditure and overhead costs.
Given that education is part of its mission, NASA – and other civil space agencies around the world, for that matter – should explore the possibility of backing an expanded Weightless Flights of Discovery or similar program. Other aerospace companies might want to think about how they, too, can get involved.
NASA also should remain open to using commercially financed and operated aircraft to provide astronaut training. Not only can NASA potentially save money by using a service for which there is a broader market, the agency can only help itself by supporting a venture that can go a long way toward rekindling public interest in space.