Niki Eggert is not an astronaut, but she's having a hard time convincing her first-grade class otherwise.
Eggert was one of fifteen participants in the Florida Zero-G Experience for Teachers at the Kennedy Space Center, a program that gives educators an opportunity to use weightless environments to enhance their math and science curriculums. She returned to her class with a video of herself doing experiments while floating in air.
"My class believed I was up in space," Eggert says. "They think I'm the coolest teacher in the world because I got to float upside down."
Eggert was not in orbit, but her weightlessness was no illusion. The Zero-G Learning Laboratory is in the belly of a specially modified Boeing 727, affectionately called G-Force One. After takeoff from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, the pilot performs a series of parabolic maneuvers that results in short periods of weightlessness -- like the high-scream part of a roller coaster ride.
First, the plane rockets upward at 500 mph at about a forty-five-degree angle. The aircraft then quickly levels off to reach zero gravity. For about thirty seconds, everything in the plane is weightless and the passengers bob around in midair. At about thirty degrees "nose low," a gentle pullout allows the flyers to stabilize on the aircraft floor.
During the flight, Eggert says, passengers experienced weightlessness nineteen times, which allowed each teacher to perform experiments to take back to class. Eggert investigated how weightlessness would affect a paddle ball, a water timer, and a toy car traveling around a track.
She says videotape of these experiments have been a strong educational aid. "Gravity was previously an abstract concept to my students," she adds. "They can't quite understand what it would be like not having it."
The Zero-G Experience is the result of a partnership between Florida-based Zero Gravity Corporation and the Endeavour Academy. Zero Gravity was founded by Peter Diamandis, chairman of the XPrize Foundation, which offered $10 million for the first privately built vehicle to launch a pilot and the equivalent of two passengers to an altitude of 62 miles -- generally considered the threshold of space -- and repeat the feat within two weeks. In October 2004, SpaceShipOne snagged the purse.
The Endeavour Academy, which provides teachers with professional-development opportunities, raised the funds for the adventure. (Typically, the trips cost $2,995 per person.) Diamandis says he hopes the venture can "inspire within [teachers] a new passion for science and technology," which they then pass on to their students.
Zero-G is working with several government and private organizations to develop opportunities for large groups of teachers and students to experience the Zero-G Learning Lab, says Gwendolyn Anello, Zero-G's director of educational programs.
Teachers riding G-Force One may not only have a thrilling ride, they may also be on the cusp of the first generation of space tourism. Many expect that commercial space travel will be a practical option within a decade. But for now, the weightless flights are a big dose of good, clean fun. "It felt like every flying dream I ever had," Eggert says. "It was like being Superman."
First-grade teacher Niki Eggert (left) feels the effects of zero gravity.
Credit: Left: Niki Eggert; center and right: Jim Campbell