"It was the greatest feeling and the weirdest feeling all at once!"
That's how Matt D'Arcy described the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity he had in July to experience zero gravity aboard a NASA aircraft.
In March 2011, Matt and his classmates from Drexel's space systems lab received a grant from the Pennsylvania Space Grant Consortium to conduct research on the Weightless Wonder – NASA's 727 aircraft that flies a series of rollercoaster-like dips and climbs, to produce periods of zero gravity.
"I got the call that we got the grant while I was in Drexel's learning center," said Matt. "I was so excited I almost jumped on the table."
In Drexel's space systems lab, Matt and his classmates had been working on a device that would help control the direction of a satellite and hold it steady in space.
"The device was essentially a tape measure inversely rolled up and mounted in the middle of the satellite," Matt explained. "Because it is inversely coiled, when released, the tape measure shoots outward. A mass secured at the end of the tape measure offsets the center of gravity, such that, wherever the tape measure is sticking out, that side of the satellite will face the Earth."
This was important because the purpose of their satellite was to take pictures of the earth, and this device made sure that the camera in the satellite was always facing down, toward earth.
"We got the grant to test our device on the Weightless Wonder and characterize how it would work in zero gravity," said Matt.
Matt's team got accepted into the NASA program and had only a couple of months to prepare for the trip to the NASA facility in Texas.
"At the time, I was working at my co-op so I would work a normal day in New Jersey, then drive to Philadelphia and work with the team in the labs sometimes from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.," he said. "Then I would drive home, sleep and go back to work. That was what I did 2 or 3 days a week."
The time came, and Matt and his team flew to Texas on July 6 and arrived at the NASA facility at Ellington Field. They spent their first few days going through orientation, typing up last-minute documents, and giving presentations to NASA engineers. They also did some sightseeing and toured Johnson Space Center.
When it came time to board the Weightless Wonder Matt found it hard to contain his excitement.
"I got up at the crack of dawn because I was so excited I couldn't sleep," he said. "Everyone was psyching us out, telling us that we'd probably get sick in zero gravity but luckily that didn't happen to any of us."
A mentor from NASA worked with Matt and his teammates in the week leading up to the flight, and joined them aboard the Weightless Wonder.
"Imagine an airplane with all of the seats taken out," said Matt as he described the aircraft. "And all the walls, the floor and the ceiling are padded to protect from things floating around."
So what exactly does zero gravity feel like?
"It is the most peaceful feeling ever," said Matt. "Your heart doesn't have to pump as hard and your muscles don't have to work to support you. They tell you what it's going to feel like but there's really no way to be ready for it. There is that moment where no matter what you're thinking, your body starts to panic because it's like you're falling through the air."
Matt and his team tested their device several times on the aircraft and had time to spare to have some fun.
"I had someone spin me in the air," he said. "And people were doing flips and dives and one-armed pushups."
Upon landing, the students were debriefed and given a month and a half to go through all of their data and compile their findings.
"We tested our device with four different masses attached to the end of the tape measure – each one partially filled with tiny metal bee-bees," Matt explained. "The reason we preferred to avoid using solid masses is because if you deploy the tape measure in space and it oscillates from the shock, there is no air resistance to stabilize it. The bee-bees inside create resistance on the mass and help it to stop oscillating. The whole process could take a long time but eventually gravity aligns the mass to point to Earth."
Matt's team found that a mass filled 50% with bee-bees had the best result.
"NASA's Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program looks for experiments that have never been tried before in zero gravity," he said. "While similar technology exists for other commercial and military applications, the same concept can be adapted to space systems on a smaller scale."
Matt and his research team also presented their results to several schools in the area in order to spark interest in space exploration.
Matt knew from an early age that he wanted to be an engineer, and get involved with aeronautics.
"I've found that what makes me tick the most is anything related to space," said Matt. "I figured that out in high school when I had a teacher who showed us videos about space and offered a planetary exploration class."
In addition, Matt's grandfather, Theodore Markiewicz '55, '60, is an engineering graduate from Drexel. According to Matt, his grandfather would tell him stories and get him excited about science and engineering. When Matt showed his grandfather the pictures and videos from the Weightless Wonder, all he could say was 'wow,' which Matt took as a good sign.
"This was the most excited I've ever been to do anything, and I guess it's because this experience was aligned with everything that my high school teacher and my grandpa have been talking to me about my entire life," said Matt. "My grandpa was really proud to see me get involved with this so it was kind of personal."
Matt is currently trying to secure his second co-op, and is focusing on his GPA. He is in Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity and has played a role in reinstating Drexel's Amateur Radio Club after his professor Dr. Jin Kang discovered its abandoned offices on the fourth floor of the Main Building.
"There are lots of things to get involved in at Drexel," he said. "When I went off to college I really decided that I would go outside of my comfort zone and try as many things as I could. You only get this opportunity once."
Matt is entered in a "Race to Space" competition sponsored by Metro Newspapers which would give him the opportunity to be considered for civilian spaceflight. The winner is determined by whoever gathers the most votes via Facebook or other social media channels. To vote for Matt and help send him to space, click here.