Press Release

Maine Students Seek Business Sponsorship For NASA Zero-Gravity Flight

By SpaceRef Editor
April 18, 2008
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Maine Students Seek Business Sponsorship For NASA Zero-Gravity Flight

ORONO — Preparing to conduct science experiments while floating weightless in an airplane has been no easy task for the University of Maine and University of Southern Maine team chosen to participate this summer in NASA’s Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program.

With not a moment to waste in flight, the team has spent recent months planning every last detail of its experiment in advance of the July takeoff, including readying the necessary equipment for shipment and converting normal research methods into ones that will work in near-zero gravity.

And the students have been doing it all, of course, while keeping up with the usual demands of their academic work loads.

Now, the biggest challenge left to the 10-member team known as Dirigo, the first ever from Maine, is to raise the money necessary by late June to get them and their experiment off the ground.

While NASA absorbs all flight and training costs, the students are responsible for all their travel and personal expenses as well as for shipping the experiment apparatus to the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The Maine Space Grant Consortium has committed $5,000 to the effort, leaving the student team to raise about $10,000. They’re now hoping that Maine businesses and individual benefactors might be interested in helping them each their lofty goal.

“We now would like to get as many area business sponsors as possible to help us raise the extra money,” explains Michael Mason, a UMaine assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering and one of the two faculty mentors for the project.

On its Web page, the team explains the NASA microgravity student program and the experiment it intends to carry out aboard the KC-135 aircraft known as the “Weightless Wonder,” which will perform 30 parabolic maneuvers at 30,000 feet over the Gulf of Mexico.

The student researchers will measure the response of human lung cells to certain toxicants that are known to damage DNA. The tests will determine whether microgravity and hypergravity affect the cellular uptake of the chemicals, and create differences in the amount of chemical-induced DNA damage and repair.

The students believe the information could aid NASA in creating safer manned space flights in the future.   

The Web page also includes information about how people can donate to the cause. Mason said there are plans to create a sponsors page which will carry links to the participating corporate or business sites, and team members will wear sponsor logos on their T-shirts during the videotaping of their roller-coaster science adventure.

As part of the program’s post-flight educational outreach efforts, the team will also take what it learned on the road, visiting sponsoring organizations, chambers of commerce and area high schools.

“This is just such a great opportunity for the students, and will provide excellent visibility for our educational system here in Maine,” Mason says. “We’re hoping that businesses will see the benefits and want to be a part of it.”

Contacts: Michael Mason (207) 581-2285; Tom Weber (207) 581-3777 

SpaceRef staff editor.