The Float'n Illini: To boldly go where few students have gone before
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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.
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.
“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.”
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Current list of Float'n Alumni:
Kamil Bartlomiej Stelmach
Kennda Lian Lynch
Current List of Float’n Faculty: