The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

NE professor becomes lighter than air

By Steve Knight/managing editor

A TCC physics professor experienced a trip of a lifetime on a recent visit to NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

Ray Benge, NE associate professor of physics and astronomy, traveled to Houston in January to board a specially equipped Boeing 727 aircraft for a one-day flight.

Benge worked with fellow educators from South Plains College in Levelland, Texas, to conduct harmonic oscillator experiments under varying levels of reduced gravity, gathering data to integrate into TCC physics courses.

“Students will be able to use the actual data and video in labs,” Benge said of the experiments.

Benge, who has taught at TCC since 1994, and his colleagues comprised one of three teams selected by NASA in 2008 to participate in the Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program.

Participants were selected from more than 100 Texas Aerospace Scholars for their passion to motivate students in science-related fields in their classrooms.

To prepare for a weightless environment, Benge underwent a week of training prior to the flight.

“They put us in a pressure chamber at one-third of an atmosphere,” he said.

“We had to get used to working in hypoxic conditions.”

Benge, a graduate of Duke and Texas A&M, said they performed various tests, such as counting forward and backward and naming the presidents to monitor how long their oxygen-deprived bodies could last.

“After about 3 1/2 minutes, we had to put the oxygen masks on,” he said.

Benge said that he learned how to avoid motion sickness by not believing his eyes.

“They told us how to move our heads to keep from getting sick,” he said.

“They also told us to make sure we ate because an empty stomach could make it worse.”

According to information from NASA’s Microgravity University, the reduced gravity aircraft flies 30-40 parabolic maneuvers over the Gulf of Mexico.

This parabolic pattern provides about 30 seconds of hypergravity, about 2G, as the plane climbs to the top of the parabola.

Once the plane starts to fly over the top of the parabola to descend toward Earth, the passengers experience about 25 seconds of microgravity, or weightlessness.

At the very top and bottom of the parabola, flyers experience a mix of partial G’s between 0 and 1.8 called “dirty air.”

“They asked us to hold on to something instead of floating the first couple of times,” Benge said.

Benge added that the flight crew would announce “Feet down!” before the aircraft pulled upward.

“If you weren’t careful, you would fall and hit the floor,” he said of suddenly gaining back his full body weight.

Benge said the harmonic oscillator experiments were successful.

“We wanted to compare what masses on springs and pendulums would do with and without gravity,” he said.

“We are excited that video of these experiments will soon be available to other schools on the Internet.

“I’ll put them on YouTube if I have to.”

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