Magazine 138/139 - page 14-15

The scientists had prepared for their zero gravity flight for weeks – filling out applications, developing experiments and
instruments, adhering to strict safety requirements for constructing their systems. And then the moment comes; the start
of three days of flights during which to conduct their experiments in the fields of biology, materials physics or medicine,
while all the time cheating gravity. A report.
Beyond the constraints of gravity – scientists conduct
experiments on DLR parabolic flights
By Manuela Braun
Palpable heartbeats and
floating cell cultures
Eyes closed and with his face completely relaxed, Hans
Schlegel floats towards the aircraft ceiling. Slowly, his body
rotates, rises, and then drifts gently back down. Around him,
the aircraft levels out at the apex of its ascent before plummet-
ing back down, diving from 8500 metres to 7600 metres.
Maximum concentration grips the cockpit. The pilots are seated
close together, strapped into their seats. Around them, everything
floats – their hair, their uniform collars. The pilot’s countdown
echoes through the aircraft’s public address system: “40, 30…”
Schlegel opens his eyes. Unless he gets his feet on the aircraft
floor quickly, he will experience a ‘rough landing’. “Pull-out.”
Captain Stéphane Pichene begins to level the aircraft. In an
instant, zero gravity is turned on its head. Arms, legs – everything
is suddenly twice as heavy as it would be on Earth. Previously
effortless movements become a laborious struggle against
gravity. Hans Schlegel wrenches himself back to a standing
position. The first parabola is complete. The astronaut partici-
pating in the study on board the ‘ZERO-G’ has now completed
20 seconds of double gravity, followed by 22 seconds of zero
gravity, and another 20 seconds of double gravity.
Between anticipation and scepticism
The first day of flights in the 22nd DLR Parabolic Flight
Campaign is underway. Thirty-one will be the number of
times that the aircraft will climb steeply to then dive back down
towards Earth. Each time, the cardiac output of the floating
test participants will be monitored, the plants observed as they
respond to zero gravity, and the satellite model released from
its launch vehicle. Granular matter will be X-rayed and dusty
plasma photographed without gravitational interference. Some
of the study participants spend the flight in a balancing act,
while others are asked to demonstrate their fine motor skills
under stress and in zero gravity. Already, at 07:45, the tension
was almost palpable. “So – your first flight?” Past experiences
were shared in the queue outside the doctor’s office. The faces
of the first-time fliers show anticipation, curiosity and perhaps
a touch of scepticism. Will they manage to work under zero
gravity conditions without feeling nauseous? Will they be able
to execute the correct manual operations at the right time when
experiments commence or samples need changing? Thierry Le-
raitre, the physician, carefully disinfects the participants’ arms
and proceeds to administer a scopolamine injection. “It helps
to prevent motion sickness.” One after the other, the scientists
extend their arm to receive the helpful medicine.
DLR researcher Peter Gauger monitors the heart rate of
astronaut Hans Schlegel as he floats
What should be done smoothly in space later on, will be
thoroughly tested during the parabolic flight – here, the
separation of a satellite from its launch vehicle.
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