Editor's note: "Hall Passages" is a weekly education feature in the Missoulian. Each week on a rotating basis, K-12 education reporter Jamie Kelly visits a private or public school in the Missoula Valley to see what's new in the halls and walls of our learning institutions. This week, Kelly spent some time in the Target Range School District.
It's a good thing that Kaye Ebelt is a pilot accustomed to wild G-force fluctuations in low-oxygen environments.
After all, NASA's "reduced gravity flights" happen aboard what is colorfully known as the "vomit comet."
"Thankfully, they'll be giving us air-sickness medication," said Ebelt, a teacher and lieutenant colonel in the Civil Air Patrol. Ebelt will join fellow Target Range School District science teacher Jann Clouse aboard a Boeing 727 in early February, carrying out experiments dreamed up by their own fifth-grade students.
Ebelt and Clouse are two members of the Big Sky Density Flyers, which will perform physics experiments in liquid density on two individual flights from Houston over the Gulf of Mexico. Three teachers from Cut Bank - Ebelt's hometown - are also on the team, which applied for and was accepted into NASA's Teaching from Space MicroGravity Experience last month.
In a series of 30 parabolic climbs and dives, the craft will simulate zero gravity for 25 seconds at a time, which is just enough for Clouse and Ebelt - along with seven other teachers from Montana - to perform numerous experiments.
In a nutshell, here's what will happen, said Ebelt:
"Climb to 30,000 feet, then level out. Fifteen minutes to set up the experiment. A series of 10 parabolas. Level out. Ten more parabolas. Level out. Ten more. Level out again."
In those 30 brief zero-gravity moments - "micro-G" for short - Ebelt and Clouse hope to answer questions about what happens to liquids of different densities and viscosities when they are together in weightlessness.
"We're going to be up against the side of the fuselage, and as soon as they go over the top, then we start floating," said Ebelt, describing what she will go through.
Her students, who have been studying zero gravity, hypergravity and the properties of liquids, will see firsthand through the videotaped flight what happens as various liquids react together without the gravitational pull of Earth.
The liquids include bee honey (donated by a student's beekeeping parents), water, corn syrup and colored salt water of various densities.
The classroom device, which injects the liquids into a large tube, was imagined, engineered and built by student Jimmy Seielstad, who is in the school's gifted-and-talented program.
"We want to see if density is the same in microgravity and hypergravity," said Seielstad, who has a pretty good idea what will happen.
On Earth, denser liquids - say, honey - will congeal and rest at the bottom of a cylinder filled with competing liquids. Think water and oil: Water sits at the bottom, but oil floats on top.
But in zero gravity, the forces that keep them apart may - or may not, we're not telling - break down.
"I think," said Seielstad, "that they'll mix."
He and his classmates will find out if he's right via the device he and his father constructed, which used numerous rubber syringes to inject the liquids into the tubes.
While NASA's focus is on education, that doesn't necessarily mean that the scientists at America's space agency don't have anything to learn.
Many of the experiments have been done before in orbit and on the moon, but there are nuances and ideas that students come up with themselves that constitute real research, which is especially important as America looks to expand its cosmic frontiers by one day traveling to Mars and beyond.
"They may learn different ways of doing the same thing - different machines or structures that might work better," said Ebelt. "But it's really about the kids taking their projects up, because they don't know the answers."
Once Ebelt and Clouse arrive in Houston on Feb. 5, they will meet with their NASA mentor before going over the final design of their experiments, which must be contained in a "glove box" into which the teachers insert their hands to carry out the tests.
The day before their "vomit comet" flights, they will also have live video talks with their students via Skype. The entirety of the flight experiments will also be videotaped, which the students will watch the following day.
The entire Big Sky Density Flyers trip to Houston has been financed by the Montana Space Grant Consortium, which funds aerospace research and education through Montana's colleges and universities.
Reach reporter Jamie Kelly at 523-5254 or at email@example.com.