WESTERLY — Westerly native Jessica Callinan has defied gravity.
She recently graduated with an aerospace engineering degree from Purdue University and celebrated the end of her undergraduate career Wednesday with a ride in NASA’s reduced-gravity aircraft at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Through the space agency’s Reduced Gravity Flight Education Program, Callinan and several of her classmates were chosen from undergraduate students around the country to test the work of their yearlong experiment in reduced gravity conditions — a .004-gravity environment, to be exact.
“It’s pretty exciting to have finished four years of crazy engineering school by flying in a reduced-gravity NASA plane,” Callinan said. “I’ve never experienced anything like it. It went by so fast. I wish I could do it again.”
The aircraft reaches a nearly zero-gravity state through parabolic flight routes, traveling rapidly upward for about 30 seconds before descending into a downward, freefall-like motion in which the plane and its passengers experience the “microgravity” environment for about 15 seconds.
The program, which began in 1995, selects space-related proposals for experiments submitted by students and educators each year, allowing them to carry out experiments while aboard the aircraft. The nearly gravity-free conditions provide a rare environment for tests, Callinan explained.
“The program is something I heard about when I started at Purdue, and I’ve always wanted to be a part of it,” she said. After gaining acceptance to the class in the fall of 2013, Callinan spent her senior year working with 11 other students to submit the proposal and draft the experiment, which aims to reduce energy output by changing the surface through which heat, or energy, travels.
“Energy requirements are one of the biggest costs associated with space operations,” Callinan said. “By using different surfaces and geometry, we wanted to see how increased heat transfer decreased the energy requirements.”
The Purdue team, one of 14 teams selected from over 100 applications, created four surfaces of aluminum through which heat bubbles could travel: a smooth surface, which served as the control; a rough, sandblasted surface; a surface patterned with four-sided pyramids; and a wave surface.
On Wednesday, the team tested the energy output as the bubbles traveled through each of the surfaces on the reduced-gravity aircraft, a two-engine jetliner affectionately known as the “Vomit Comet” because of its steep climbs and falls.
Callinan said she was “excited and nervous” before takeoff.
“I didn’t know what to expect, because there’s no real reference frame for anything you can compare it to,” she said, explaining that she and her teammates were given anti-motion-sickness medication before the flight. “The first fall, everyone started cheering. I don’t even know how to describe it. I’ve never experienced anything like it.”
Callinan added that with the windows of the aircraft closed, it was more difficult to feel the “dropping” feeling characteristic of a rapid descent.
“If we were able to see ourselves dropping at a 45-degree angle, then basically everyone would get sick,” she said.
Callinan and the other student teams arrived in Houston over a week ago, spending the days before the flight tests putting finishing touches on their experiments. Before leaving on Saturday, the participants attended a series of lectures and tours of the Johnson Space Center, including the Neutral Buoyancy Lab where astronauts train before heading into space.
After collecting their data from the in-flight experiments, the team will put its findings together in a final report to submit to the program in the next eight weeks.
Callinan, who graduated from Westerly High School in 2010, said space has always been of interest to her.
“Ever since she’s been a little girl, she’s always wanted to be an astronaut,” said her mother, Sandra Callinan. “She’s really followed through with it.”
Callinan added that she chose to attend Purdue, in Lafayette, Ind., based on the quality of its aerospace engineering program — it’s ranked as the fifth-best program in the country, and has had teams participate in NASA’s reduced-gravity program for 17 years in a row, according to the program’s website.
After returning to Westerly this weekend, Callinan will celebrate her graduation in a more typical fashion: with a three-week trip to Europe with friends. She then begins work full-time as an engineer with Electric Boat in New London. While her work there will focus on naval architecture, Callinan said her dream career remains out of this world — or atmosphere, at least.
“I do still have that long-term goal of working on a space-related program,” she said.
For more information about NASA’s Reduced Gravity program, visit reducedgravity.jsc.nasa.gov/.