Vomit Comet

Posted February 25, 2000 at 5:29 pm No Comments

The KC-135 reduced-gravity aircraft in flight.

The KC-135 is a modified Boeing 707 four-engine turbojet that NASA uses to simulate conditions of weightlessness. In a typical flight, it traverses the Gulf of Mexico in a series of large parabolic arcs. Peaking at 32,000 feet, the plane then dives to 24,000 feet, its fuselage pitched down at 40 degrees. At the top of the parabola, passengers lose all sense of gravity and become weightless for a period of roughly 25 seconds. When the airplane comes out of the dive and begins its next ascent, the plane pitches upward at about 50 degrees and passengers on the craft are subjected to forces up to 1.8 times that of gravity. This climbing and diving is repeated thirty times in what might be described as the ultimate roller coaster ride.  Flying on the KC-135 nauseates passengers so frequently, however, that the plane has been nicknamed the “Vomit Comet”.
Although best known for its role in astronaut training, about 80 percent of the plane’s flights are actually conducted in support of research or engineering. Under a program administered by the Texas Space Grant Consortium, the space agency makes the KC-135 available to undergraduate researchers for two weeks each year. This Sunday I’ll be traveling to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where my project team will be conducting a series of microgravity experiments on board the KC-135. Our project involves the use of virtual reality (VR) as a pre-flight adaptation training tool. Our hope is that advance training in VR will reduce feelings of motion sickness and give trainees a more intuitive understanding of the conditions of zero gravity.

Kate trains in the VR simulator.

A screenshot from the simulator showing the
interior of the KC-135 main cabin.

I’ve spent the last few weeks programming a VR trainer that simulates the conditions on board the KC-135. We theorize that after someone has practiced a series of simple tasks in the simulator, they will perform the same tasks more effectively in actual practice.  I’m not too optimistic about the results of the experiment, but whether or not our research is a success, I’m sure that the trip will be a great experience.

I’ll be taking plenty of photos while I’m in Texas, so check back if you’re interested in tracking my progress. I won’t be making a flight until the second week, but the first week should involve some interesting lectures, tours, and training procedures.

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