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Released March 7, 2003


By Christopher Mapp

HATTIESBURG - When Emilie Laiche was asked to fill the final spot on a University of Southern Mississippi undergraduate team conducting biology research aboard NASA's KC-135 aircraft – known affectionately as "The Vomit Comet" – her answer was immediate.

"This is just something you don't pass up," Laiche said, her eyes twinkling in anticipation of the flight that will simulate zero gravity for about 20 seconds at a time as it conducts nearly 40 parabolic arcs over the Gulf of Mexico.

The junior biology major from New Orleans will join a team of five other students from Southern Miss that will travel to Johnson Space Center in Houston March 13-22 to take part in NASA's 2003 Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program (RGSFOP).

Consisting of two groups, a flight crew and a ground crew, the team will try to resolve some unanswered issues that evolved from an experiment Southern Miss undergraduates performed last year in the same program.

During the 2002 flight, Southern Miss biology students investigated altered lighting conditions and the effect of altered gravity conditions – both microgravity (zero g-forces) and hypergravity (1.8 g-forces) – on jellyfish.

The team's faculty adviser, biology professor Patricia Biesiot, said that during last year's experiment, a comb jelly and a jellyfish medusa were both affected by the altered gravity conditions.

"Our hypothesis is that comb jellies are able to sense the changes in gravity and the changes in lighting and that they swim in response to these changes," said graduate student Michelle Melnick of Memphis, Tenn.

For posterity's sake, the team will videotape the entire experiment, allowing them to review the results back at Johnson Space Center. But that's not all videotaping will allow them to do, said team member Jennifer Anderson, a graduate student in marine biology.

"We designed the apparatus to be self-contained so we could have fun," said Anderson, who will not participate in the flight itself but will act as part of the two-person ground crew. Although she won't be going up this year, Anderson, one of three students returning from last year's team, said that experiencing weightlessness is like nothing imaginable.

"Really, there are no words to describe it," she said. "Not floating in water, nothing."

Said team leader Michael Dodge, who also participated last year, "It's pretty intense."

While the flight itself might be short – about one hour – preparation for the trip is not. To ensure maximum safety, NASA requires all students to undergo an eight-hour training course. About 69 different teams from around the nation that are participating in the flight program learn about the vestibular system and gas exchanges – in other words, the mechanics that earned the KC-135 the moniker, "Vomit Comet."

"It's not the microgravity that makes you sick," said graduate student Brian Ortman, also member of last year's team. "It's the alternating G-forces that do it." To help team members combat the queasy effects of the flight, NASA administers a drug to all participants, called Scopedex, a mixture of depressants and stimulants.

Dodge, a junior from Bay St. Louis, said: "The depressant is so you won't get sick and the stimulant is so you won't fall asleep. Last year, our flight was what they call a ‘no-kill flight,' which means no one got sick. We were the fifth flight in a row where nobody got sick."

Anderson said that getting sick is the only real hazard. Thanks to NASA's stringent safety precautions and mandatory training courses, Anderson said she felt "safer on the plane than I did on the ground."

Hazards or no hazards, Daniel Pocase said he can't wait to experience weightlessness for the first time. "How many people get to fly with NASA?" said Pocase, a junior biology major from Mobile, Ala.



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July 16, 2003 9:52 AM