European Space Agency

The First Parabolic Flight Campaign for Students

W.J. Ockels

Directorate of Manned Space Flight and Microgravity, European Space Agency, Noordwijk, The Netherlands, & Faculty of Aerospace Technology, Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands

In the last week of November 1994, a different type of parabolic flight campaign took place: For the first time, students were given the unique opportunity of experiencing weightlessness. The campaign was part of the second European Week for Scientific Culture and the main goal was to motivate and educate the students rather than to obtain pure scientific and technological results as is normally the case in 'professional' campaigns.

Twenty student experiments were chosen in a Europe-wide competition and the winning student teams were invited to carry out the experiments during a series of parabolic flights. The experiments covered a wide variety of disciplines ranging from general and fluid physics to material processing, crystal growth, and technology research. The campaign was a great success, all experiments worked well and the students proved to be a serious and motivated workforce which performed well in the rather unsettling microgravity environment. By learning from each other's experiments and through the unique personal experience of weightlessness, the students have become ambassadors for microgravity research. Most importantly, they have shown that we can have confidence in the next generation to make good use of microgravity research opportunities, including the International Space Station, in the future.


Each year, the VSV Ruimetevaartdispuut, the society of engineering students specialising in space technology at the Delft University of Technology in The Netherlands, organises an activity that is of significant educational value for the students but also offers great public visibility.

In early 1994, the students were intrigued by a comment made by the author during one of his lectures on crewed space flight. While discussing the various methods of simulating space conditions, including parabolic flights, he stated jokingly, 'Why don't you (the students) try to take part in such a flight?'. The comment was taken more seriously than could have been expected.

The society immediately began seeking sponsors for a parabolic flight campaign for Dutch students. Naturally, ESA was approached. ESA, however, proposed to host a campaign that would be open to all European students, and invited the Delft students to organise a Europe-wide competition whereby interested students could submit a proposal for an original experiment that they would carry out in microgravity on board the parabolic flight. Funding for the campaign was assured by ESA and the European Commission. ESA also agreed to contribute the services of staff who are regularly involved in the preparations for parabolic flights, to organise the student flight.

In March 1994, the society distributed posters and brochures advertising the competition to numerous universities.

The deadline for the submission of proposals was the end of June. Forty nine proposals were received from 11 countries. An international jury, under the author's chairmanship, selected 22 experi ments as candidates to fly. The flight was set for the last week in November. The time available to the students to prepare their proposed experiments was extremely short, much shorter than is normally given for the preparation for a professional flight (three months versus typically six months to a year). In spite of the tight deadline, 20 experiments were confirmed to be ready for flight in mid- September.

The experiments

Some 50 experiment proposals covering a wide variety of disciplines were received. The jury selected 22 on the basis of their educational value and microgravity relevance. The chosen experiments are listed in Table 1. A fair geographical distribution was reached, with 11 countries participating in the flight campaign (Table 2).

The scope of the experiments was large: they ranged from a simple demonstration of weightlessness for an educational film on the pendulum (SP-1) to new and advanced investigations on mutation rates in DNA (CH-1) and research on the stabilisation of large structures in space (I-6) (PhD work).

During the flight campaign, the organisers discussed each experiment with the student team to determine why the research was being undertaken - the background behind the experiment as well as the students personal reasons for participating and the educational relevance for them.

Some experiments originated from individual initiatives, such as the experiment studying the mean free path between the collision of 400 small balls in a transparent, 30-cm sphere (B-2) (Fig. 2) and the finger-type instabilities of a ferro fluid in a magnetic field (I-7) experiment. In that last experiment, the student had taken the effort to read five-years worth of issues of Scientific American to find something new to investigate, and he did. For some other experiments, the student teams had already performed the work in the laboratory but this campaign provided an opportunity to try it in microgravity (Unidirectional casting of AlPb alloys, D-5; Gene expression in primary osteoblasts, D-6). Some other experiments were based on experiments that had already been flown in space but unexpected results had raised the need for further investigation (Cobalt nitrate crystal growth in a 'chemical garden', GB-2; Dust 'collage' study, D-1; Second-order Marangoni flow, D-4). One experiment, a geological model of the atmosphere, called 'couette flow', came from a group already performing microgravity research using a 100 m-high drop tower (D-12). Some simple experiments proposed to study the behaviour of fluids: one experiment studied the mixing of two fluids when brought into contact (D-10), another the shape of large, spinning droplets (NL-4). The dust and filter combustion experiments (P-1) and the electric heating of a printed circuit board (SU-1) are very relevant to safety on board a spacecraft.

Angular momentum effects were applied to study a model satellite with sloshing fuel tanks (NL-6). Attempts were made to change an astronaut's orientation by running water through a coil wrapped around his body (GB-1) (Fig. 3). Two quite advanced and specially designed experiments studied the magnetic levitation of an air bubble in fluid (D-9) and nucleation in low melting temperature glasses (F-4). Two students from ENSICA, a school in Toulouse (F), explored a novel way of deploying a large (1.5 m), low-mass antenna: by spinning it (F-1) (Fig. 4).

List of Experiments
Table 1. List of experiments

Geographic Distribution
Table 2. Geographic distribution of the experiments

Campaign Team
Figure 1. The campaign team, including the 49 students, the pilots and the support staff

Motion of Gas
Figure 2. A student observes the motion of gas molecules and the mean free path between collisions using 400 balls in a sphere as a model

Body Rotation
Figure 3. Can an astronaut's body be rotated in microgravity by pumping water through a coil? One student attempts to find out

Low-Mass Antenna
Figure 4. Another student deploys a low-mass antenna by rotating it

Campaign preparation

The campaign was set up like a regular ESA campaign, at the Centre d'Essais en Vol (CEV) base in Bretigny, south of Paris. The company Orbitics, contracted by ESA, was responsible for the accommodation of the experiments in the Caravelle aircraft and for their safety. Before the campaign began, they visited each of the experiment development sites to inspect the experiment and to advise where necessary. The series of visits was completed by the end of October 1994.

Despite the shorter than normal time to prepare the experiments, the student teams managed, with great enthusiasm and professionalism, to have their experiments ready in time while still satisfying the safety regulations. The students, who ranged from 17 to 31 years of age, had to undergo medical and physical examinations before they could be accepted for flight.

One week before the flights, the students, some with additional 'ground support', arrived at the CEV. They stayed in a nearby hotel for two weeks, one week for the preparations, and the other for the flights. Twenty journalists from TV, radio and the written press also participated in the campaign.

In the first week, the experiments were made ready for installation in the airplane, with the enthusiastic support of the CEV technicians. 'Students tend to better listeners than professionals' was overheard.

The flight week

The campaign took place during the last week of November 1994. Before the actual flight programme started, the participants were given a safety review and extensive briefings on emergency procedures. They were also given medication against motion sickness, if they requested it.

Five flights were conducted on five consecutive days, with each flight lasting about 2 hours and including 21 parabolas. Up to 20 passengers could take part in each flight: there were seats for 14 students, 2 support staff and 4 journalists. The various experiments were accommodated on four flights. The fifth flight was used as a reserve, to be used to re-fly those experiments that encountered problems and that could be improved. In that way, all experiments had a fair chance and each of the 49 students could participate in at least one flight.

The payload had to be reconfigured after each flight. The students worked until late to be ready for the flight the next day. A very strong team spirit quickly evolved, not least due to the fact that the video footage of the flights was shown and discussed each evening upon the students return to the hotel.

The students proved to be an excellent workforce. During the flights, almost half of them became ill (typical for first- time flyers), but that did not hinder them from performing their experiments enthusiastically. All students were greatly impressed by the effect and the experience of weightlessness. Such an experience cannot not be fully anticipated. They became aware of a new environment and began to think differently about what microgravity is and how it can be used.

The press showed substantial interest in the campaign. ESA held a welcoming ceremony, which included a visit by ESA's Director General, J.-M. Luton. Some 14 journalists also had an opportunity to fly with the students.

Some early results

The first student parabolic flight campaign was a great success. The main success was that the students experienced personally the weightlessness in which they performed their own experiments. This experience created a strong motivation for science and technology in general, and for space technology and microgravity research in particular. Many of them learned to appreciate the different fields of science. For most of them, it was also an eye-opener to learn the different ways microgravity can be used in research. All of the participants established new contacts with other European students and demonstrated a strong ability to work together as Europeans.

This campaign showed that the next generation of engineers and scientists have a strong interest in space, that they are capable of developing and performing relevant experiments, and that they have an excellent aptitude and work attitude.

Although 'science' was not explicitly the objective of the student campaign, some preliminary results are notable:

The students are still analysing their data. Many of the other experiments will undoubtedly show results as interesting as the ones mentioned above. The students will meet at the next Le Bourget Airshow in Paris (in June) to discuss their latest results.

Aluminium-Lead Alloy
Figure 5. Unidirectional solidification of aluminium-lead alloy as seen by an infrared camera


The first student parabolic flight campaign was a great success. The European students who initiated the campaign, developed the experiments and conducted them personally in weightlessness, demonstrated the potential of tomorrow's microgravity science community. Those young European researchers proposed innovative ideas and implemented them in an unusually short time. The students, coming from 11 different countries, displayed a strong cooperative spirit which the supporting technicians, operators, managers and pilots welcomed warmly.

For many of the students, this campaign was a very significant experience and should have a positive impact on their future careers. The experience increased their interest in science and technology, made them aware of a large variety of other scientific disciplines, and has given each one valuable contacts with European partners.

The success of this campaign was the result of the hard work of many professionals, including engineers, technicians, pilots, and companies. The students, in particular, the initiators and organisers of the competition represented by Jasper Hillebrand of the VSV Ruimtevaartdispuut, are also to be commended. It is expected that such an event will be repeated in the upcoming years. In fact, an annual Student Parabolic Flight Campaign would be well justified as a European activity to enhance our scientific and technological culture.

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Right Left Up Home ESA Bulletin Nr. 82.
Published May 1995.
Developed by ESA-ESRIN ID/D.