NASA Offering 2nd Round of Weightless Flights

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  Space News Business

NASA Offering 2nd Round of Weightless Flights

By BECKY IANNOTTA
Space News Staff Writer
posted: 12 February 2009
02:02 pm ET






WASHINGTON
— NASA plans to select about 20 experiments to fly in August on a specially equipped Boeing 727 airplane owned and operated by Las Vegas-based Zero Gravity Corp. that simulates the weightless conditions of space.

The flights are offered through NASA’s FAST program, or Facilitated Access to the Space Environment for Technology Development and Training, which provides free access to space-like environments for testing new technologies that might some day be applied to NASA missions. The program’s goal is to bridge the gap between laboratory testing on the ground and becoming qualified for spaceflight.

“This is not a development program,” said Andrew Petro, manager of NASA’s Innovation Incubator program that includes FAST. “We’re expecting proposals that are already at the point for this kind of testing.”

On behalf of the FAST program, Zero Gravity’s G-Force One aircraft will fly four flights from NASA’s Ellington Field in
Houston
over a one-week period starting in August. During each flight, G-Force One will fly 40 to 60 parabolic trajectories, each lasting about a minute and a half and providing about 25 seconds of microgravity conditions during steep dives.

NASA has been flying parabolic flights for decades on its own aircraft, a KC-135 and a C-9 based at Ellington Field and managed by
Johnson
Space
Center
‘s Reduced Gravity Office. In January 2008, NASA agreed to buy up to 80 flights from Zero Gravity Corp. under a so-called indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract with a potential value of $25.4 million over five years if all options are exercised. The agreement is part of NASA’s effort to tap commercial capabilities where they are available.

The first G-Force One flights under the FAST program were conducted in September 2008, with five companies participating. During those flights, the FAST program shared space on the airplane with experiments from other NASA programs, but this time there is opportunity for more experiments from companies, research labs and universities.

“Assuming we have enough proposals that are good, we’ll be able to fill the flight ourselves,” Petro said. “We expect a pretty good response.”

Proposals are due March 20, and NASA intends to announce the experiments selected by May to give researchers three months to prepare their equipment. For example, researchers will need to cover all sharp edges on their hardware and take extra precautions to make sure fluids do not leak from containers during the flight.

“It’s not only taking lab equipment into decreased gravity, but to increased gravity too when we pull out of the” dives, Petro said.

Each team that is selected will undergo a one-day training session at NASA’s
Johnson
Space
Center
in
Houston
; researchers who fly with the experiments will receive a medical briefing.

Petro
said he expects to see projects that could help NASA develop technologies to return humans to the Moon by 2020 and some other experiments measuring the effects on humans of exposure to a reduced gravity environment.

The number of experiments NASA selects will depend on the size of the equipment and the number of people required to accompany each test, but Petro estimated there will be room for about 20 projects. Two or three people can fly with each experiment, although some tests do not require anyone to be on board, he said.

Among those who flew in the September flight series was Steve Oldenburg, president of nanoComposix Inc. of San Diego, and four members of his staff. The group members took turns going up on two separate flights to monitor a company experiment designed to determine whether the high thermal conductivity of nanofluids – fluids containing suspended nanoparticles – changed in different gravity conditions.

The tests validated lab results on the ground that showed no change, which will help advance the company’s development of silver nanowires, which are so tiny that they float in a liquid medium,
Oldenburg
said.

“It was an incredible opportunity,”
Oldenburg
told Space News. “The experiment was successful and moved us farther along on the [technology readiness] path.”

Petro
said he hopes to expand the FAST program in the future to fly several weeks each year and eventually include suborbital flights as companies develop that capability and market it to private and government customers.

“Not only does NASA benefit from new sources of innovation, but we’re expanding the market for this as well,” he said.