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UNCP’s Weightless Lumbees ready for zero gravity

June 26, 2014

“More people have climbed Mount Everest than experienced zero gravity,” said Molly Musselwhite, a member of UNC Pembroke’s Weightless Lumbees.

In June, the newest edition of the Weightless Lumbees were preparing for a trip to NASA’s Reduced Education Gravity Flight Program, where they will conduct a scientific experiment in zero gravity. The four-member team will make a 10-day trip to Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, in July. There, they will climb aboard NASA’s specially-equipped aircraft to experience 30 sets of rollercoaster-like climbs and dives, producing periods of near weightlessness and hypergravity ranging from 0 to 2 g’s.

weightless lumbees

The team is pictured front row from left: Molly Musselwhite and faculty advisor Dr. Rachel Smith; back row from left: Tiffany Scott, Georgianna Revels and Trae Griffin

The team’s experiment seeks to learn how fluids react to zero gravity. The experiment, which takes place inside a Plexiglas “glove box,” measures the effects of gravity on a human biochemical process, specifically the “cori cycle,” or how muscles react in zero gravity.

The Weightless Lumbees will have a little fun with the educational outreach aspect of the program. “We do a really cool experiment for school children, and this year we will video it with a GoPro camera,” Musselwhite said. “We will pop a water balloon in zero gravity.”

“What happens is that the balloon will hold its shape in reduced gravity, and when we return to gravity, it will explode, said Georgianna Revels, who is the Robeson Community College’s representative on the team. “The kids will like it.”

This is the second consecutive year the Weightless Lumbees have been accepted to the program. Musselwhite and Tiffany Scott were part of last year’s team.

The team is very proud to be part of the NASA program to represent UNCP and proud for one other reason. “Last year, we were the only all-female team, and, I am not certain, but we may have been the only women in the hangar,” Musselwhite said.

The team consists of Scott, a senior chemistry major from Lumberton; Musselwhite, who graduated in May and is applying to physician assistant programs; Trae Griffin, a senior biology major from Lumberton and a member of the U.S. Marine Corp Reserves; and Revels, a transfer to UNCP from RCC, who is a junior mathematics education major from McDonald, N.C.

The team’s excitement is palpable. Working with NASA and running an experiment in a micro-gravity environment is a unique opportunity.

“There are no experiments like this on campus,” Scott said. “The only thing I regret about last year is that I spent too much time working with the experiment and not enough time enjoying it.”

“The hardest part so far was writing the proposal to NASA,” Griffin said. “That was a more serious project than anything I’ve done before. What I’ve noticed is that the actual experiment is the least of our worries.”

Griffin is justifiably nervous about flying aboard the NASA aircraft, which is often referred to as the “vomit comet.” Last year’s team did not experience motion sickness.

“There was only one ‘kill’ on the plane last year,” Musselwhite said. “That’s what they say when someone gets sick.”

Dr. Rachel Smith, a biochemist, took over from Dr. Tim Ritter, a physicist, as faculty advisor this summer. Ritter, who has been faculty advisor since they coined the name Weightless Lumbees, has a three-year appointment to teach at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. The students appreciate his contributions.

“Dr. Ritter was there for us throughout the entire process,” Musselwhite said. “He really had his heart in the project.”

Dr. Smith jumped into the project after it was well underway. “I am comfortable with the biochemistry, but as far as the affects of micro-gravity, it’s all new to me,” Dr. Smith said. “The students have taken charge, and they have been very responsible.”

Along with advising on the experiment, Dr. Smith will join the team aboard the aircraft. “I’m looking forward to it,” she said with a smile.”