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

12/10/2017

Doug Peterson

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'

Gallery: click on images to see full size image and captions.


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
  • Amanda Kinney
  • Arjun Venkataswamy
  • Carlisle Wallace
  • Christopher Kabureck
  • David Fike
  • Elizabeth Bozek
  • Eric Biederman
  • Graeme MacDonald
  • Heidi Meicenheimer
  • Jeff Kowtko
  • Jenny Stuart
  • Jessica Hellwig
  • Jim Knohl
  • Joannah Metz
  • Jonathan Haughton
  • Jonathan Navarro
  • Justin Pochynok
  • Kamil Bartlomiej Stelmach
  • Kelly McAllister
  • Kennda Lian Lynch
  • Kevin Lewis
  • Kevin Zhou
  • Larry Skorski
  • Lisa Mueller
  • Liu Johnson
  • Mark Riley
  • Mark Wallace
  • Melissa Bradley
  • Melonee Wise
  • Mike Voightmann
  • Ngan Chung
  • Nidhi Patel
  • 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
  • Willie Hendricks

Current List of Float’n Faculty:

  • Eric Loth
  • Henrique Reis
  • Joanna Austin
  • Scott MacLaren
  • Stef Milczarek
  • Steve Errede

Thanks to Jim Knohl for the following details:

Sonochemistry Experiment

March 15th, 2000
Graeme MacDonald
Nidhi Patel

March 16th, 2000
Melissa Bradley
Joannah Metz (already on list, she must have continued in the group)

Fluid Flow Experiment, Run 2

March 15th, 2000
Jenny Stuart
Willie Hendricks

March 16th, 2000
Amanda Kinney
Jim Knohl

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