The Float'n Illini: To boldly go where few students have gone before

Doug Peterson
12/10/2017 9:00:00 AM

ISE History: the NASA-Award winning passion of the Floatin' Illini Club.
ISE History: the NASA-Award winning passion of the Floatin' Illini Club.

Note: This is an article about an exciting fragment of ISE history, written by piecing together documentary sources. If you are pictured in this article, or would like to comment, please email the editors at communications@ise.illinois.edu — we'd love to hear from you.

Officially, people call it the “Weightless Wonder,” but unofficially it’s known as the “vomit comet.”

These are the nicknames for an airplane used by NASA’s Reduced Gravity Research Program to simulate weightlessness. When the plane follows a parabolic flight path, it goes into a brief free-fall, giving passengers the sensation of being in a low-gravity environment, and it can be a nauseating experience. 

Professor Henrique Reis
Professor Henrique Reis
Select University of Illinois students had a chance to ride on the Weightless Wonder back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the Float’n Illini group on campus learned firsthand what it was like to experience low gravity. ISE Professor Henrique Reis served as the group’s first advisor. He says, “I never had [as] much fun working with students than this.” 

Reis recalls that in the late 1990s, Kennda Lynch, a student in his component senior design course asked if he would serve as the Float’n Illini’s academic advisor. This student was as persistent as a “pit bull on a pants leg,” so Reis agreed. 

The Float’n Illini were part of a NASA program, in which students wrote proposals to run experiments in microgravity environments. Once they obtained funding from private companies, they spent one week conducting the experiments on the ground in Houston, and a second week running the experiments in the microgravity environment.

The Float’n Illini no longer exists, but in its heyday it attracted students from across campus, not just engineering. Reis says there was even a student from veterinary medicine whose dream was to raise animals in space.

Members of the Float'n Illini in front of a space shuttle at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center
Members of the Float'n Illini in front of a space shuttle at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center

“These students were absolutely passionate about space,” he says, and it showed in the amount of time they devoted to the program. They would stay up until three or four a.m. working in the laboratory on their experiments, and Reis was sometimes concerned that they were neglecting their regular coursework.

In addition to running experiments, the students crisscrossed Illinois, speaking at high schools and conducting educational demonstrations to illustrate the effects of a gravity-free environment. For this work, the Float’n Illini received the 2000 Space Pioneer Award from the National Space Society.

“These students were single-minded, extremely focused individuals,” Reis says.

But did he ever join his students aboard the vomit comet? He did not. As he says with a smile, “You grow wiser with age.”

Plaque on award: SPACE PIONEER AWARD Presented by the National Space Society FLOATN ILLINI TEAM for EDUCATION 2000 'I'm Sharing Our Vision with the Next Generation'
Plaque on award: SPACE PIONEER AWARD Presented by the National Space Society FLOATN ILLINI TEAM for EDUCATION 2000 'I'm Sharing Our Vision with the Next Generation'

Students pose in front of a space shuttle in Texas.
Students pose in front of a space shuttle in Texas.
Written on the photo is 'San looks to the heavens for divine inspiration'
Written on the photo is 'San looks to the heavens for divine inspiration'
Name on photo: Dave Fike
Name on photo: Dave Fike
Dave Fike working and looking at the camera.
Dave Fike working and looking at the camera.
Name on photo: Eric Biederman
Name on photo: Eric Biederman
Students on the plane with their experiment.
Students on the plane with their experiment.
The Float'n Illini gathered around their experiment in Houston, Texas.
The Float'n Illini gathered around their experiment in Houston, Texas.
The girls in the Float'n Illini Club gather together for a picture.
The girls in the Float'n Illini Club gather together for a picture.
The Float'n Illini club gathers together for a picture outside of the Transportation Building at the University of Illinois.
The Float'n Illini club gathers together for a picture outside of the Transportation Building at the University of Illinois.
Students gather around their experiment.
Students gather around their experiment.
The logo for the Float'n Illini club
The logo for the Float'n Illini club
Written on the photo is ''Freshman' (I'm really a senior) at heart. Thanks Prof Reis Mike (illegible)'
Written on the photo is ''Freshman' (I'm really a senior) at heart. Thanks Prof Reis Mike (illegible)'
Student kneels down by a doorknob
Student kneels down by a doorknob
Student asleep in chair
Student asleep in chair
The Float'n Illini Team pose for a picture at dinner.
The Float'n Illini Team pose for a picture at dinner.
Students work on their experiment
Students work on their experiment
Students at work
Students at work
The Float'n Illini pose for a picture in front of a space shuttle at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center.
The Float'n Illini pose for a picture in front of a space shuttle at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center.
A student on the airplane prepares for a low gravity environment
A student on the airplane prepares for a low gravity environment
Students having fun with an orange
Students having fun with an orange
A student lays across two chairs
A student lays across two chairs
Name on photo: Jeff Kowtko
Name on photo: Jeff Kowtko
Name on photo: Joannah Metz
Name on photo: Joannah Metz
Name on photo: John (illegible)
Name on photo: John (illegible)
Sign reads: Johnson Space Center University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign Transitional Fluid Dynamics at the Onset of Zero-Gravity
Sign reads: Johnson Space Center University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign Transitional Fluid Dynamics at the Onset of Zero-Gravity
Written on the photo is 'This cannot be too complicated, it is made for an engineer. Kevin Lewis'
Written on the photo is 'This cannot be too complicated, it is made for an engineer. Kevin Lewis'
Sitting down on the plane
Sitting down on the plane
Poster reads: 
National Space Society 
International Space Development Conference 
Tucson, Arizona May 28, 2000
Space Pioneer Award for Education
Accepting award for the Float'n Illini (left to right): Professor Henrique Reis (advisor), Kevin Lewis, Scott McLaren (advisor), Jenny Stuart, Joannah Metz, Mark Wallace. Presented by NSS President & Space Shuttel Commander Dan Brandenstein
Poster reads: National Space Society International Space Development Conference Tucson, Arizona May 28, 2000 Space Pioneer Award for Education Accepting award for the Float'n Illini (left to right): Professor Henrique Reis (advisor), Kevin Lewis, Scott McLaren (advisor), Jenny Stuart, Joannah Metz, Mark Wallace. Presented by NSS President & Space Shuttel Commander Dan Brandenstein
Closer picture of the Float'n Illini at the National Space Society International Space Development Conference
Closer picture of the Float'n Illini at the National Space Society International Space Development Conference
Written on the photo is 'Noah S. Wallace 'The Look''
Written on the photo is 'Noah S. Wallace 'The Look''
Poster of Professor Reis on the wall captioned 'Freshman, I am watching you!!!'
Poster of Professor Reis on the wall captioned 'Freshman, I am watching you!!!'
Professor Reis and Scott MacLaren in a meeting
Professor Reis and Scott MacLaren in a meeting
Written on the photo is 'Sandun Gunawardana I hope I have this blank during the summer..'
Written on the photo is 'Sandun Gunawardana I hope I have this blank during the summer..'
A student reads a piece of paper in front of a chalkboard
A student reads a piece of paper in front of a chalkboard
Students floating on the plane
Students floating on the plane
Some of the members of the Float'n Illini gather around their experiment. Names written on the photo are Dave Fike and Joannah Metz.
Some of the members of the Float'n Illini gather around their experiment. Names written on the photo are Dave Fike and Joannah Metz.
The Float'n Illini sit on a sign reading 'Welcome National Aeronautics and Space Administration Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center NASA'
The Float'n Illini sit on a sign reading 'Welcome National Aeronautics and Space Administration Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center NASA'
Name on photo: Alyssa Rzeszutko.
Name on photo: Alyssa Rzeszutko.
Name illegible on photo
Name illegible on photo
Dave Fike floating on the plane.
Dave Fike floating on the plane.
Name on photo: Lisa M. Mueller
Name on photo: Lisa M. Mueller

SLIDESHOW: mouse over the image to reveal the caption, click to enlarge image.


FOR FURTHER READING:

Float'n Illini use NASA equipment to test project to benefit satellites. The News-Gazette.

Read about where Kennda Lynch's interest in space has taken her career

Current list of Float'n Alumni: 
Adam Ragheb
Ahmed Scales
Alyssa Rzeszutko
Arjun Venkataswamy
Carlisle Wallace
Christopher Kabureck 
David Fike
Elizabeth Bozek
Eric Biederman
Heidi Meicenheimer
Jeff Kowtko
Jessica Hellwig
Joannah Metz
Jonathan Haughton 
Jonathan Navarro 
Justin Pochynok
Kamil Bartlomiej Stelmach
Kelly McAllister
Kennda Lian Lynch
Kevin Lewis
Kevin Zhou
Lisa Mueller
Liu Johnson 
Mark Riley
Mark Wallace
Melonee Wise 
Mike Voightmann
Ngan Chung 
Palash Basu 
Patrick Jakubowski 
Rachel Williams 
Robert Kuang
Robert Maldonado 
Rohan Rana
Sandun Gunawardana
Scott Kathrein
Stephanie Milczarek
Steven Eberle 
Steven Nash
Wayne Lytle 
Wayne Neumaier 

Current List of Float’n Faculty: 
Eric Loth
Henrique Reis
Joanna Austin
Scott MacLaren
Stef Milczarek
Steve Errede

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