Education Professor Gets a Heavy Lesson on Weightlessness

Posted: October 18, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

Kevin Clark may never get to outer space, but he can say that he’s defied gravity more than once.

Clark, an associate professor in the Instructional Technology Program in the College of Education and Human Development, discovered some truths about the amazing way the planet works by taking part recently in one of the Northrop Grumman Weightless Flights of Discovery at Dulles Airport.

With about 20 other teachers, Clark hopped a cargo plane that proceeded to take them on the flight of their lives. The weightless flight uses a microgravity learning environment to teach teachers how to relate science, technology, engineering and mathematics concepts to space exploration. Designed to help teachers inspire and motivate students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the program is very similar to the training astronauts do for spaceflight.

Kevin Clark
Kevin Clark took his Mason Spirit with him during his weightless experience.

Floating through the air and flipping slow-motion somersaults, Clark and his companions, mostly high school teachers from the New Orleans area, experienced differing degrees of weightlessness during the flight, ranging from low-gravity environments typical of the moon (1/6 G) or Mars (1/3 G) to complete weightlessness (zero gravity).

The teachers flew in a modified aircraft called G-Force One. Specially trained pilots flew the aircraft in a series of maneuvers called parabolas, or arcs, between the altitudes of 24,000 and 32,000 feet, creating temporary zero-gravity environments. At the end of each “weightless” period, which lasted approximately 30 seconds, the aircraft gradually pulled out of the descent, reestablishing a more normal gravity environment inside the plane.

“It was really interesting,” says Clark. “We would start by lying on the floor, and then gradually begin floating. There we were, just floating around, and then splat! – there would be a pile of people on the floor.”

However, the teachers put those 30-second intervals to good use by conducting science experiments. Part of the mission of the flights is for teachers to take what they’ve learned and go back to apply it to the classroom. They each designed a microgravity experiment that applied science, technology, engineering or mathematics principles to human activities in a weightless environment.

Teachers did motion experiments such as swinging a pendulum, releasing M&Ms from a jar or pouring water in zero gravity. “Gravity holds water together. When you are in zero gravity, it clumps like Jello,” notes Clark.

Clark was the only college professor on his flight, and the only professor from George Mason to ever participate in this program.

“I got to actually experience a phenomenon that most people only read about and see how it impacts everyday things. It really changed my perspective and sparked an interest in space,” says Clark.

The Weightless Flights of Discovery program was created and developed by the Zero Gravity Corporation (ZERO-G), a private company that specializes in bringing the exhilaration of weightlessness to the general public. In 2006, the program will include 12 workshops and 12 flights for approximately 250 elementary, middle-school and high school teachers representing all 50 U.S. states, five U.S. territories and 24 countries.

Kevin Clark weightless
Photos courtesy Northrop Grumman

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