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Space Institute’s Experiment Tested on NASA’s Zero-Gravity ‘Roller Coaster’ Parabolic Flights

The University of Tennessee Space Institute’s fingerprints were all over a recently tested gravity-free experiment that could provide adequate drinking water for future astronauts on long space trips.

Designed by Basil N. Antar, UTSI professor of Aerospace Engineering, and Donald Reiss, a microgravity scientist with NASA’s Marshall Space Fight Center, the experiment was performed with the help of UTSI doctoral student Dan Lehman aboard an aerial roller coaster that for two days simulated zero gravity conditions.

Since astronauts could not carry sufficient water on lengthy trips to Mars, Antar says it will be necessary to “re-circulate waste water over and over.”

Boiling water would be “useless” without gravity, he continued, “because in zero-gravity conditions, bubbles never float to the surface. We are working on a method to separate vapor bubbles from liquid under space conditions in hopes that this technique could be used for future advanced life support systems, and especially for supplying potable water to the astronauts.”

This was among first flights of NASA’s DC-9, which has replaced the KC-135 “Vomit Comet.” Launched from Ellington Air Force Base, the plane went through up-and-down, parabolic arcs over the Gulf of Mexico. While Antar monitored from the ground, Lehman assisted Reiss in operating the airborne experiment that involves separating gas from liquids to get rid of bubbles in micro-gravity conditions. Such bubbles also cause deformities in crystals, silicon micro chips, glass fibers and in other in-space processes, Antar noted.

As in astronaut training, for 40 times each day the plane dropped 10,000 feet (to zero gravity) then pulled back up to between 30,000 and 35,000 feet (two g’s).

“I’ve had experiments in more than 50 of these flights since 1990,” Antar said.

Lehman, a recipient of a NASA Space Grant who received his master’s degree in Aerospace Engineering at UTSI in December, made two earlier flights on the KC-135 plane. In one, he helped test another of Antar’s experiments that also dealt with gas-liquid separation in a micro-gravity environment. Before that, as an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota, Lehman took a ride on the “Weightless Wonder” KC-135 courtesy of a special NASA program. He is the son of Floyd and Sylvia Lehman of Watertown, S.D.

Dan Lehman, left, balances on one finger during a zero-gravity parabolic flight while Donald Reiss checks on an experiment designed by him and Basil Antar, a UTSI professor.
— Photo by Dan Lehman