Walking on Air

Walking on Air

Hybla Valley teacher chosen for zero gravity experience of a lifetime.

As a science resource teacher at Hybla Valley Elementary, Sherry Chevalley spends much of her time helping run labs. She knows how difficult it can be to organize dozens of excited pupils as they each conduct their own experiments.

But a classroom of third-graders was nothing compared to the science lab Chevalley found herself in two weeks ago while she and her team of two colleagues tried to conduct their own experiments. None went as planned. They wanted to spray water into one another’s mouths, but were stymied after the water bottle spilled and its liquid floated off through the air in a big ball. When Chevalley lay on the floor to do one-finger push-ups, she could never get past the first one, which would send her floating helplessly to the ceiling. And her efforts to throw one teammate, curled into a ball, through a hula-hoop never got off the ground because the Federal Aviation Administration didn’t allow the hula-hoop through security.

Matters were hindered further by the other 18 or so teachers in the hold of the Boeing 727, all trying to conduct their own experiments. “It’s total chaos in there. Let me tell you. It’s total chaos when you have twenty people floating around,” Chevalley said. “Teachers are squealing. All of a sudden you’re floating and you’re excited. So it was noisy and you have people bumping into one another.”

Chevalley was participating in the Northrop Grumman Weightless Flights of Discovery program, also known as Zero-G. The global defense company gave teachers from across the country the opportunity to experience weightlessness with flights in five cities over the summer.

In a press release, Tom Vice, a vice-president with the company, stated, "Our goal with the Weightless Flights of Discovery program has been to provide teachers and their students with a renewed enthusiasm for the learning process, and show them that technical subjects are not only entertaining, but downright interesting."

Chevalley was offered a ride because she and another Hybla Valley teacher, Betsy Rabun, applied to the National Education Association for a $5,000 grant for classroom science resources. When Zero-G contacted the NEA looking for a participant, the NEA asked Chevalley if she wanted to climb aboard a 727 that would repeatedly scream into the sky at a steep 45 degree angle, flatten out and send its occupants shooting up to the ceiling, then descend at a 30 degree angle before bottoming out and pushing its nose up for another gravity-negating parabola.

Chevalley’s response to this invitation was immediate. “I was like, ‘Where do I sign?’”

A WEEK BEFORE THE FLIGHT, Chevalley met her colleagues for a one-day training. She was teamed with Andrew Todd, an algebra teacher at a middle school in Westover, Md., and Diana Mitchell, a middle school principal from Saulsberry, Md. They planned out the experiments they would try to conduct while weightless the following week . “Much of what we teach, particularly gravity, zero gravity, is information we learned from textbooks. We haven’t experienced it,” Chevalley said. “This is to provide teachers with a hands-on experience up there when they are floating.”

On the day of the flight, the teachers were each issued a jumpsuit. Although they had taken pills to control their nausea, each suit was equipped with a barf-bag. They had to pass through a standard security check, including an x-ray machine and a metal-detecting wand. Security confiscated Chevalley’s team hula-hoop and a scale they’d planned to use to demonstrate the ebb of gravity. It had a hook for hanging things that the FAA deemed a potential weapon.

Chevalley said that as the plane climbed, the teachers were instructed to lie flat on their backs. As they soared higher and higher in the sharp angle, g-forces built up, pushing the participants against the deck with a force far stronger than normal gravity. “You’re just pressed down on the floor,” Chevalley said. But when the plane reached the apex, and leveled out, gravity abruptly disappeared. “They would announce, ‘Okay you’re going to be weightless,’ so you feel yourself going up, and when you make a slight movement you feel yourself flipping or going straight up, Chevalley said. “I would try to go straight up so I could put my hand on the ceiling and have more control. Most of the time I didn’t have much control, I’ll be honest.”

She struggled to describe the feeling of floating for the 30-45 seconds of zero-g created by each of the dozen parabolas. “Just the experience of being weightless was absolutely — it’s hard to find words to describe it really. It’s something you’ve never experienced, so there’s nothing to compare it to. But it was the most phenomenal experience.”

But the videos of astronauts smoothly shooshing themselves through hatches and writing notes obscure the difficulty of moving with no resistance. “I was doing flips when I wasn’t trying to do flips.”

“THIS IS SOMETHING that’s talked about in every science class known to man,” said Chevalley’s teammate, Andrew Todd, who was selected because he was the county’s teacher of the year. “When I show the video [of the zero-g flight] this year, it’s going to have a lot more meaning, to be able to see what zero g looks like and why it’s happening.”

“It’s Newton’s Third Law, you just keep going until you hit something and then you change direction.”

Chevalley said she is eager to bring her experience into the classroom. “It just opened my eyes to what zero gravity really is and what takes place at zero g and what we would have to do to compensate for that if we were living in a space colony.”

She is particularly eager to talk to her fourth graders, who are learning about simple machines, force and motion. “All of the kids that I’ve talked to are just fascinated, and they’re waiting for me to come to their classes and do lessons and just talk about it.”

But there is one thing she’ll never be able to explain to them. “I don’t understand why the hula hoop couldn’t go through,” she said. “That one was beyond me.”