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MSU Team To Conduct Zero Gravity Research
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- A team of nine Mississippi State University students is taking a research experiment to weightlessness as part of a NASA outreach program.
NASA's Reduced Gravity Project is making it possible for the animal and dairy science team to test the action of a firefly enzyme in a weightless environment. The team and their advisor will be in Houston at NASA's Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center March 6 to 18 for preparation and two flights.
Dr. Scott Willard, reproductive physiologist with MSU's animal and dairy science department, is team advisor. He said the experiment will determine if zero gravity affects enzyme reactions and will study the possibility of using an enzyme that makes fireflies glow to monitor how genes change.
"We will use the firefly enzyme as a reporter enzyme to monitor gene expression in living cells," Willard said. "But first, we need to determine if the reaction of this enzyme is affected by micro gravity. Whether or not the activity of this enzyme is affected by zero gravity also could indicate that other enzymes in the human body are similarly affected."
Nationwide, 87 teams submitted proposals for participation in the Reduced Gravity Flight Initiative, and MSU's team was one of just 47 chosen to participate.
They will be flying in a KC-135A airplane designed to perform the parabolic maneuver needed to achieve zero gravity. Each two to three hour flight creates 30 to 40 zero gravity sessions lasting about 25 seconds each. The plane flies a wave- like pattern, reaching an altitude of 34,000 feet before descending 10,000 feet in each maneuver. Weightlessness is achieved as the plane "tops the hill" and descends into the "valley" before climbing again.
Team members will use these windows of opportunity to conduct the experiment. Advance preparations are being made to allow the experiments to be carried out efficiently and accurately while in a weightless environment.
Stacy Lawrence, animal and dairy science and pre-vet junior from Meridian, is flight team leader. She said the team's entire equipment must be fastened to a metal plate not larger than 24 by 60 inches that NASA engineers will bolt to the floor of the airplane. All unattached equipment must be confined so it is convenient for use yet won't float away.
"The fliers have to be very comfortable performing the experiment," Lawrence said. "We only have about 30 seconds each time to do our experiment, and we hope to run it at least 10 times on each flight."
Heather Chrestman, a senior animal and dairy science major from Pontotoc, is part of the ground crew for the project. She said the team is working now to meet NASA's specifications, mount the equipment correctly and ensure it works properly.
"We're working to solve the problem of how to get the liquids into the machine without them flying around," Chrestman said. "The NASA engineers also are concerned about the fluid dynamics and whether the liquids will stick to the sides of the containers."
Once in Houston, the ground crew will perform the same experiments on the ground that the other team members conduct in the air. This will provide a control group with which to compare results.
In addition to Willard, Chrestman and Lawrence, the team is composed of fliers Kimberly Bowie Cuny from Kosciusko, Jennifer Spencer from Tunica and Paul Storment from Golden; alternate fliers Dawn Tucker from Columbus and Jeremy Maness from Raleigh; and ground crew members Kirsten Holt from Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Charlotte Rose from Starkville. A fifth person, an MSU journalist, will fly on one of the two flights.
Funding for this combined teaching and research effort with NASA is being provided by MSU's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station.
Contact: Dr. Scott Willard, (662) 325-0040