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Area educators experience weightlessness in a jet
The Zero Gravity Corp. allows teachers to experience zero gravity on a parabolic flight. On Sept. 16 a group of 30 teachers from across the Southeast, including two from the Hall County area, took a weightless flight. - photo by Courtesy Zero Gravity Corp.

In a scene her students say resembled a mosh pit, Audra Whitaker floated weightlessly aboard a Boeing 727.

The flight attempt wasn't the most elegant, the Chestatee Academy of Inquiry and Talent Development teacher said.

"It's hard to explain that feeling of weightlessness," Whitaker said. "I felt out of control. My body wanted to kick."

Whitaker, and 30 other schoolteachers, including Gainesville resident Garrick Hill, participated in "Weightless Flights of Discovery" Sept. 16 in Memphis, Tenn. The experience is similar to space flight.

To simulate weightlessness, the specially equipped jet flies up and down in a series of arcs. As the plane dives, the passengers and objects fall at the same speed in 30-second intervals.

"It's really cool physics," said Hill, who teaches at Creekland Middle School in Gwinnett County. "When I threw a football down the cabin, I felt like Randy Johnson."

The national program is sponsored each year by Northrop Grumman Corp., a global security company that deals with aerospace systems, so that teachers can relate their experience to students, and hopefully inspire some of the youth to pursue jobs in math and science.

"It gives teachers something useful to deliver in the classroom," Northrop Grumman spokesman Gus Gulmert said. "If they're energized, that's bound to come across in a lesson."

During the flight, the teachers had the opportunity to experience simulations of the Earth's gravity, Mars' gravity, zero gravity, lunar gravity and about two times the Earth's gravity.

As the teachers floated around the cabin, they conducted and filmed science experiments; several of which were developed by students.

Eighth-grader Jason Kim, one of Whitaker's students, came up with an experiment to test if a peanut would crack as the plane rose into 2G's.

"I thought it would, but it didn't," Kim said. "It looked really fun. Not a lot of people get to try that."

Aboard the flight, Whitaker said she hesitated during the first spurt of weightlessness. Like other teachers, she was sick. But by the next round, Whitaker was crawling on the walls and flipping around the cabin.

Hill said his knowledge of physics momentarily lapsed the first round, as he careened head first into the ceiling, after pushing up from the floor.

"I have a master's degree in science education and I forgot everything I learned," he said.

Gulmert said the program has hosted more than 40 flights and 1,100 teachers over the last five years. This year, flights were held in Texas, Ohio, Tennessee, Mississippi and are yet to be held in Hawaii and Utah.

Whitaker shared a video of the flight with her students.
She said the eighth-graders laughed as the teachers in the video squealed.

"They weren't sure that we could all be teachers because we sounded like little kids on the playground," she said.

Both Whitaker and Hill said they plan to incorporate similar gravity-related experiments into their lesson plans.

They each also found the experience to be life-changing, and said they will apply for the program again next year.

"It's as close to being a real astronaut as I'll ever get ..." Hill said.