By Allison Lince-Bentley
AUGUST 17, 1998: Vomit Comet - the name itself evokes a glurping, sputtering globular celestial body or some godawful amusement park ride. I was absolutely positive that there was nothing to like about a "Vomit Comet," whatever one might be.
Such a vulgar name. Vomit.
My extreme dislike of nausea has kept me away from Gravitrons and Teacups and tire swings my entire life, without regret. Hearing of the Vomit Comet did nothing to whet my appetite; my insides lurched as I discovered what it really was.
One day in physics class, our teacher, Jackson Pace, told us all about it. The Vomit Comet is a little piece of NASA ingenuity - a KC-135 aircraft that flies parabolas, up and down, in and out of gravity. The inside is all hollowed out and padded, with some movie theatre-style seats in the back where passengers sit for takeoff and landing. The takeoff and landing, however, are far gentler than the ride that comes in between. During flight, the pilots drive the plane up at a 45-degree angle, then down at a 45-degree angle, over and over in a seemingly endless series of hills. At the top of each "hill" the pilots cut the engine and passengers experience about 20-30 seconds of zero G (zero gravity, free fall, weightlessness). At the bottom, they experience about a minute of two G (twice earth's gravity). This rolling motion is what induces nausea, hence the affectionate nickname, "Vomit Comet."
Let's be clear, right from the start: I did not actually fly on the Vomit Comet. The last time I threw up was more than five years ago, and I planned to keep a clean record for as long as possible. However, after watching my friends experience what they experienced, I admit that if ever in my life I am given the opportunity to do so, I'll be up there in a heartbeat. I'll throw my breakfast to the wind. I'll heave it all up for a chance to fly.
But I better back up and explain myself before going any further.
In brief: This past school year, the LBJ Science Academy director, Dan Gohl, learned from his friend, Burke Fort at UT's Texas Space Grant Consortium, that high school students were being invited to run experiments on NASA's Vomit Comet in a first-ever pilot program called "FlyHigh'98."
Pace (the reigning teacher at the head of our mission) was the one who really won me over on the idea of the Vomit Comet. One day around Christmas time I stopped by his classroom to drop off some teacher recommendations, and he told me (off the record, of course) that LBJ had been invited to send a student group to NASA to ride on the Vomit Comet. I nodded and smiled, thanked god I wouldn't be going, tried to be pleasant while my stomach gurgled and churned, and listened in an otherwise patient manner. But I gradually found myself more curious. This had everything to do with Pace's genuine enthusiasm. It draws people in, whether they like it or not. Pace is a big guy, stands around 6 feet 6 inches tall, has an arm span of what seems like 7 feet, and talks in a gen-u-ine Texas accent. His appearance can be intimidating at a glance, but when he opens his mouth he's nothing more than an oversized Teddy bear.
Around school, Pace is known for his idiomatic expressions - better known as Pacisms - which pop up in lectures from time to time due to excessive zeal for the subject matter. For example, exalting some new advance in rocket booster technology, he might beam: "I mean, this is the greatest thing since warm toast!" Or on the prospects of reaching the speed of light: "It's scarier than snot." If you weren't paying attention in class, he might bellow: "You'd better keep yer eyes open or I will flunk yer tail. I won't say ding wattle when you come up to ask me about yer test." And he has this phrase he uses for people: "lit-up," which means they have a lot of vitality. He would never use "lit-up" to describe himself, however.
So that day he was going on about the Vomit Comet - saying how it when it scoops down you feel twice our earth's gravity, when it scoops up you're in free-fall, and somewhere inbetween you are guar-un-teed to blow beads - and I was hooked. The Vomit Comet stuck in my stomach. I knew that this machine and I were destined to meet.
Pace worked his magic and "lit-up" this group of kids who were chosen, whipping them into shape so that they could handle the responsibilities ahead smoothly. And there was a lot to handle. NASA is an intense professional scary thing and AISD is a sluggish bureaucracy. Our group of kids had to make the two bodies flow together. The waivers, the letters, the phone calls, the deadlines en route to the Vomit Comet - we could have plastered the Great Wall of China with the paperwork. To make matters worse, while all the paper planning was taking place, the kids also had to work on experiments to take on board the flight.
Our students ended up selecting two: a blood-pressure/heart rate analysis and a magnetic field demonstration (basically the old grade school trick of playing with a magnet and metal filings, only set in a three-dimensional field - believe it or not, no one had ever seen that in zero G before). In short, the team did a lot of work. It was a fantastic learning opportunity, as we got to see how our previously meaningless education became useful in a real world experience. It's the type of life lesson teachers always hope for.
Some problems were inevitable, however. NASA required that all Vomit Comet fliers be in top medical condition, not a pound overweight or nose over-runny. A few weeks from the flight, one member was cut from the team for being asthmatic, one risked being cut with an ear infection, and our icon of enthusiasm, Mr. Pace, pushed himself to lose 15 pounds so that he could meet height-weight requirements. Yet, despite the fact that at any time each student ran the risk of being yanked from the team for medical reasons, everybody still kept working.
Growing up is a curious thing. We change from little kids who idolize adults to adolescents who deem them too lame to lick our toes to young adults who like to pretend we are capable of acting like them. There's this brief period between the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood when suddenly the idea of being a "grown-up" is especially enticing, when it's actually fun to toy with responsibility. Most of us Vomit Cometees were at this stage of life. We acted sort of like children in oversized shoes, scooting around, imagining what those feet were going to look like when they were big enough to fill them. We knew that if we tried to go too fast, we might fall over and ruin the moment.
That's what I noticed, observing our Vomit Comet team. Most of the kids seemed determined to play dress-up with the adults, to behave mature and dignified. Yet, we were just plain kids, still stuck in that limbo between child- and adulthood. Consulting with one of the NASA mentors the night before the flight, members of our team acted as professional as possible, barely revealing the giddiness undoubtedly brewing inside. Tomorrow they would go have the experience of a lifetime, but this night they were more preoccupied with maintaining dignity.
As he discussed laws of physics with NASA pros, student Michael Cox would dip his chin - I'm sure he didn't even know he was doing it. He would lower his head to make whatever he was saying seem more serious. He'd begin with something like, "Well, we need to adjust the energy flow through the left capacitor and be ready to equilibrate the [blah, blah, blah]..." with just enough staring off into the distance to make his spiel seem all the more professional. Then the rest of the group would chime in with appropriate mature phrases and interjections, like, "Yes, but we have to make sure we compensate for gravity fluctuations," or "Wait-wait-wait! Shouldn't somebody be responsible for watching the potentiometer?" etc.
It was grand. Never before in my life had I seen my peers handle so much responsibility and so much adult attention so well. It was fantastic. The next morning, however, was the real test.
When I saw her for the first time I knew that this would be a hell of a field trip. She was sitting out on the tarmac, humming that irritating hum that planes do, waiting for the maintenance crews to open her up and swab out her insides. It's funny that I remember the sound at all, because my first impression of the Vomit Comet was perfect stillness. Our flight crew had been chattering nervously the whole van ride over and Pace had been booming out last minute do's and don't's, but when we walked out onto the tarmac at Ellington Field, everything was quiet for one still moment. Whether out of fear or awe or respect, we all shut up and looked at it.
Roughly the same size as a commercial plane, the Vomit Comet is white, with a long blue stripe from head to tail. It looked like a toy, shining in the early sun - I wanted to touch it, reach out and pick it off the tarmac, and put it in my pocket. It looked so perfect.
Inside, it stunk. It smelled like a locker room, of old vinyl and mechanical oil. It was surprisingly smaller than I imagined it. So dank and balmy. (I sniffed a couple times to see if I could detect any bile, but the smell wasn't quite like that.)
Somehow, the reality didn't take anything away from the romance. In fact, it made it all the more exciting. I could see my friends in flight, imagine them bumping into the padded walls, doing somersaults, throwing up. And ohh! I wished I was going too! How could I avoid being jealous, seeing the Vomit Comet, for real, on the inside ... smelling it!
I sighed briefly, helped my mates strap down the experiments with rope and duct tape, took some pictures, and wished everybody well. That was that.
Our ground crew for the first flight was joined by the kids who were not going to fly until the second day. On the second day, we were joined by the four who had already flown. The eight of us quickly began making wagers on who out of the flyers would be the first to blow and charted our betting pool on the dry erase board in the conference room. The video downlink was better on the second flight, and even though we had to live without sound effects, we had a fair view of the first flight while the camera man panned various people and experiments. We watched eagerly.
On the third of 10 parabolas, Rita Hamad showed signs of nausea. She tossed a quick glance at Ryan Graf as they went flailing up into weightlessness. "She's gonna do it," someone said, "She's gonna throw up! Just look at her eyes!"
We all watched her gulp as she plopped back into her seat during the two G period and prepared to see her hurl. But then the camera spun around to Maria Perez. A little "Awwww..." of disappointment went around the room.
"Look at Maria. She looks fine," somebody remarked. Watching her bob around, I scowled in defeat. Maria was my first pick for puke, and she showed no signs of sickness.
Meanwhile, the camera sent back shots of our magnetic experiment, running beautifully. The little metal filings glittered in a perfect football shape around the electromagnets. Cheers seeped out from the crowd. Then Meredith White (who spent the first flight miserable and green) floated into view, smiling and having the time of her life.
Everyone seemed pleased. But something was missing. Admittedly, we were a little eager to see some real Vomit Comet action.
Then Jacob Leverich came to the rescue. The camera turned on him, arching his back as he heaved his breakfast into a plastic barf bag. The room lit up with screams. "Ye-ah! He's gone!"
All of us were laughing, some of us were even standing up out of our chairs to relish the moment in a true NASA-style victory cheer.
Mission Control: The breakfast has landed!
I don't know what about that moment was so special, but witnessing Jacob Leverich's homage to the Vomit Comet was a bonding experience. All that professionalism and work and planning dissolved as we become one in the glory of the moment. Poor Jacob has no idea how happy he made all of us. There's something about being so delighted, so excited that you can't help but laugh. I hope I never forget what that instant felt like; how fun it was to laugh at my own friends throwing up. Prime entertainment. Made me happy to be alive, happy to be laughing at something that ordinarily would have made me sick to my stomach. This was a life-changing moment.
The moment released us all. We let go and started having fun. When the first flight's crew emerged from the plane about an hour later, Pace stood at the top of the stairs, arms thrust out into the air, and let out a great big wonderful, "Whoooohooooooooo! LBJ!!!" as only Pace can. The others came filing out, smiling, ecstatic. Even poor Jacob (carrying the garbage bag given to him after he filled all six of his barf bags) cracked a grin. Pure joy. After all of the obligatory interviews and camera crews on the tarmac we gathered back into the conference room to the sound of Pace singing Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools." We showed off our wager chart on the wall. The fliers felt obliged to state that they "never felt sick at all." We humored them accordingly.
As we were driving out of Ellington Field that afternoon, Pace took it upon himself to jerk the car from one side of the road to the other (it was an empty road of course), saying something like "Hey! Vomit Comet, y'all! Whooohoooo!" He was trying to see if he could recreate the G-forces and get the rest of us sick, but oddly enough, I wasn't the least bit nauseated. I was enjoying myself, laughing as a matter of fact. And I realized at that moment that my relationship with motion sickness was forever changed, after watching the Vomit Comet. Not that I'm going to jump on a Gravitron the next time the carnival comes to town, but at least now my world doesn't have to be so stationary. I could probably handle the tire swings and Teacups.
What did I do on the trip, exactly? I watched, took "interviews," and wrote notes down. It's surprising how little of that stuff I ended up using. I got to live it all, just the same as the rest of them. It was sort of like a really good movie, where you become so immersed in the characters that you feel like you're in the screen, right there with them. That's what it felt like to me. I didn't fly on the Vomit Comet, but I lived the experience just like they did.
For the first few days after the trip, I had a hard time describing what it was about the trip that was so wonderful, but I think I've finally put my finger on it. Riding on the Vomit Comet for this team was more symbolic than anything else. Everybody knew that NASA was taking a bit of a risk with high schoolers, but the fact that an organization, a government organization for that matter, would invite us to come along for the ride showed sincere trust and respect. That's all anyone really wants, but to high schoolers trust and respect go an especially long way.
And from NASA!
The beautiful thing about NASA is that it is a government organization that dreams. Military implications notwithstanding, where else in the federal budget do we spend billions of dollars doing the impossible? It has universal appeal in every sense of the word. But we take space exploration for granted, at least I did.
During one of our backstage tours while at NASA, I saw the inside of a little glider, just a toy compared to a shuttle. The hull was an incredible tangle of buttons and switches - thousands of them. After seeing how difficult it was to design our group's magnetic field box, imagine - a shuttle! No wonder they're always running late. The fact that we ever made it into space, made it to the moon, is solid proof that humanity is extraordinary beyond our wildest dreams. But I'm digressing too much, and I don't even like the word "digress." Having lived only 18 years, I don't know what the rest of life is supposed to be like; I don't know if I'm supposed stop being enthusiastic about life and start worrying about work and money. Those of you out there with the wisdom of experience might be saying to yourself, "She's too young to understand. Wait 'til she finds out." But man, this was fun! I get a kick out of knowing that these kids, my friends ... in 10 or 20 years, one of them might be the next Shannon Lucid or John Glenn. And when they're asked, they'll tell the masses: It all started with the Vomit Comet...
Chronicle intern Allison Lince-Bentley finished high school last June. She will be entering Charleton College in the fall as a declared English major (the only one, as far as we know, from the LBJ Science Academy's graduating class of 1998.)
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