So You Want to Be an Astronaut: NASA Offers Undergrads a Chance at Reduced Gravity Flight

Undergraduates: Have you ever dreamed of being an astronaut? NASA is offering a chance to see what it's like with their Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program. Read on to learn more about the program and how you can get involved.

Launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis

Are you interested in physics or astronomy? Do you dream of exploring the stars or swooping around space in zero gravity?

NASA's Reduced Gravity Student Flight Program provides a 'unique academic opportunity' for college students interested in learning more about space travel. Managed by the Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston, the program offers undergraduates the chance to design, build and fly a reduced gravity experiment. The experience includes scientific research, hands-on experimental design, operations testing and public outreach activities. As program manager Douglas Goforth notes, 'This project gives students a head start in preparing for future ventures by allowing them to do hands-on research and engineering in a truly reduced gravity laboratory.'

In other words: The closest most students will get to being an astronaut.

After completing their experiment and undergoing physiological training, participants will have the opportunity to fly in a reduced gravity aircraft. The craft typically flies 30 'parabolic maneuvers' over the Gulf of Mexico.

A parabolic maneuver resembles the climbs and dips of a rollercoaster ride, creating periods of micro and hypergravity. Near the top of the parabola, the craft - and its inhabitants - will experience about 30 seconds of hypergravity, which is up to three times the force of the Earth's regular gravity. As the plane crests the tip of the parabola and begins to descend back to Earth, inhabitants will experience about 25 seconds of weightlessness, or microgravity. At the very top and very bottom of the parabola, participants will experience 'dirty air,' which is a mix of partial gravity between 0 and 1.8 G's.

Floating Astronaut

One team will be selected based on the strength of their proposed experiment. All participants must be U.S. citizens, and students must be undergraduates and at least 18 years of age. Applicants are invited to submit a letter of intent by September 22, 2010. Although this step isn't required, it gives teams a chance to introduce themselves to the program. Project proposals are due October 27, and selectees will be announced on December 8.

The proposal should include the team's idea for a 'microgravity,' or reduced gravity, experiment. The idea can be part of a class, or an independent research project. Students should inquire with their schools to learn if they can earn academic credit for the experience. You can get more information about the program, including application guides and examples of past student flight programs, on the Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program website.

The Reduced Gravity program is part of NASA's education programs, which operate under three primary goals:

  1. Strengthen the space program and the nation's future workforce.
  2. Attract and retain students to the STEM disciplines: science, technology, engineering and math.
  3. Engage Americans in NASA's mission.

NASA offers a broad range of educational programs for K-12, higher education and teachers and faculty. They range from space camps to laboratory projects to educational lectures and community outreach. To learn more about ongoing educational programs, visit the NASA Education website.

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