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‘They weren’t in Kansas…

Jerry O’Connor, coordinator of the physics program at San Antonio College, said engineering students realized they weren’t in Kansas anymore during their recent trip and participation at the Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston during the week of November 11-15, 2013.

‘They weren’t in Kansas anymore’


Jerry O’Connor, coordinator of the physics program at San Antonio College, said engineering students realized they weren’t in Kansas

anymore during their recent trip and participation at the Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston during the week of November 11-15, 2013.

As if it were scripted, the teams ran into their share of ‘Houston, we have a problem’ moments during testing. Eight students, on two four-person teams were accompanied by O’Connor and Dr. Dan Dimitriu, SAC engineering coordinator, when they spent a week in Houston testing their experiments aboard the reduced gravity aircraft.

O’Connor’s team consisted of Team Leader Darcy Stephens, Thaddeus Brickley, Emma Garcia and Vernon Lymus. Dimitriu’s team was team leader Erica Zeelenberg, Jacob Prado, Marisol Ordaz and Alexander Rivera.

Although the students had some fun experiencing the reduced gravity, it wasn’t all fun said Dimitriu.

“They were completely green,” said Dimitriu about the students as they went into the program.

Dimitriu said they had work, a lot of learning and struggles. There was a point he didn’t think they had a chance because of fuses burning out and one experiment not working correctly right up until the scheduled flight, but the students pulled it through and were able to succeed.

To top it all off, the trip nearly did not occur due to the government shut down earlier in the year. /uploadedImages/San_Antonio_College/News_and_Events/News/NASA-1.jpg 

How did this all come to fruition? 

Students were encouraged to submit ideas for experiments in April. NASA had their ideas as well. NASA brought all of the ideas together to see what was the best of both, or what ideas could be matched up. It wasn’t until August when students found out what experiments were selected.

For SAC students, this was the first time they submitted ideas, and not just one was chosen, but two – a first on many accounts.

With the changes in semesters, and the projects not being done until now, team members changed, but the ideas remained the same. One team has even been invited to visit again to continue work on their experiment.

During their week of learning, the students were briefed on how their body reacts to low gravity, motion sickness, how the senses are affected, listened to speakers and worked on their experiments. The students had to defend their project and conduct a test readiness review.

The professors said there was one case of motion sickness from another team that NASA said was one of the worst cases they had ever seen. They said the problem isn’t the feeling of weightlessness; it’s when the normal gravity comes back where most people get sick.

Dimitriu said his best comparison to weightlessness is scuba diving, except with scuba diving you still have control of your movements and where you are going. “You don’t have any control in weightlessness,” he said.

O’Connor described it as the feeling you get when an elevator makes an abrupt stop and you feel that brief uncontrollable movement.

The students and instructors were also able to experience the gravity of Mars, the moon and double weight gravity, or 2G.

It’s a unique, very unique experience, said Dimitriu. “I can try to describe if, but you have to feel it here,” he said bringing his hand to his chest.

The student teams flew their experiments, “Atmospheric Entry with One Axis Control” and “Vibration Induced Sine Waves in Water.” One team investigated the effectiveness of a potential emergency backup stabilization system using a reaction wheel to arrest tumbling motion for a space capsule entering the atmosphere. The other team explored the effect of reduced gravity on the transmission of waves in a stream of falling water during the reduced gravity flight.

But just because the teams are back home and on stable land, does not mean they are done working. The teams will issue their final reports analyzing the experiments’ effectiveness, scientific findings and conclusion to NASA in two months.

 What do the students have to say? 

/uploadedImages/San_Antonio_College/News_and_Events/News/NASA-Flight.jpg Brickley, Garcia, Lymus and Stephens all agree this was a once in a lifetime opportunity that had its challenges along the way, but they wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

Garcia said it was a wonderful experience. All but Brickley are engineer majors. Brickley is a math major.

“NASA’s kind of a culmination of all of these things,” said Garcia. “So for us, it was just us geeking out for a week straight,” she added with a laugh.

“It was like a vacation in a way,” said Stephens. We work hard, we study, and we put a lot of energy in our discipline. We were doing things that we love.”

Brickley said the experience was difficult and wasn’t easy. They pulled in all-nighters to work on the project and worked pretty much every day. It was amazing to see the culmination of all the work they had done at the Johnson Space Center, he said.

Stephens said a lot of what they did was material they had not covered yet, so it was exciting to go out and learn that on their own, getting help from advisors and building on the foundation of the knowledge they already had.

“I feel like our future is a lot stronger because we’ve been exposed to this material at such an early step,” said Stephens.

The group believed their experience at flight week has a profound affect on what the future holds for them.

Brickley, who is almost finished with his associate in math, is now looking forward to getting an associate degree in engineering because of the experience.

“The applications of mathematics far outreach pure mathematics,” said Brickley. “Not saying mathematics is bad, it’s just I prefer engineering. It’s a lot more fun.”

It was exciting to apply everything we have learned, said Brickley.  Learning how everything works there, he said, brings them hope that their degrees will be applicable.

One thing new for this flight week was having two teams from the same college. Garcia said people were slightly confused about the two teams from San Antonio College.

Her thoughts about them being selected… “We’re just that cool.” Experiencing Zero Gravity 

Engineering at San Antonio College 

Dimitriu said there is something that sets his students, SAC’s engineering department, apart from other colleges and universities.

“We have a different approach,” said Dimitriu.

First, one of the most important things, is the professors come from the industry of engineering. They are not just academic. They have real world experience and can share that with their students.

The students are also able to perform their experience right here on campus. He said with the updates to the MESA Center, the experiments will expand and more students will be able to be active with their ideas.

Grants and other funding, even from donors, helps the students participate in these types of programs, he said. So they make sure the funding is there before agreeing or planning to participate in something.

We have one of the best two-year programs in the nation, said Dimitriu about the engineering program here at SAC.


The students are now in search of outreach opportunities. Outreach is something they need to do as part of their NASA project. They are in search of kids, students, classes or anyone else that might be interested in learning about engineering, the program or their experience at NASA.

If anyone is interested, they contact Stephens at  or call 830-832-4305.