Space Oddity

Middle School science teacher Mike Mailey conducted a class experiment in a zero gravity simulator.
Gravity, in a Middle School science lab and elsewhere on Earth, is inevitable. Launch an object in the air and it will always tumble back down. In the classroom, discussion of gravity and its implausible absence requires a degree of imagination and hypothesizing. Or, if you’re Middle School science teacher Mike Mailey, you take a trip on Zero Gravity Corporation’s “vomit comet” to experience weightlessness and conduct your class experiments there. 

Mailey was working on forces in motion with his class when Zero-G’s medical consultant specialist and Collegiate alumnus Marsh Cuttino ’86 and Middle and Upper School STEAM Coordinator Dan Bartels serendipitously approached him with an opportunity to take a flight on what is infamously known as the “vomit comet,” Zero-G’s plane that flies in a parabolic motion at altitudes reaching 32,000 feet to simulate weightlessness. With the opportunity, Mailey was able to take a theory his class was hypothesizing and test it in a zero-gravity simulation.  

“In class, a bulk of our first quarter was about finding gravity on Earth and doing experiments to verify what gravity is on the surface of Earth,” Mailey says. “And then, suddenly, I’m given this opportunity with Zero-G’s ‘vomit comet,’ where we’re able to remove the variable of gravity from the equation. Gravity is a variable that for my entire academic career you can’t escape, and you can’t really change that, and then suddenly, with this simulation, we get to change that variable.”  

Before taking the trip down to Florida, where the Zero Gravity Corporation is stationed, Mailey and his classes got to work discussing what kind of experiment they’d run. In class, the students had been studying a principle called the Magnus effect, which explores how certain objects spin and lift through the air while others rise and fall in an arc. They imagined that, without gravity, a cylindrical object’s lift would continue on its glide path, never suffering the weighty pull of downward force. “The students got to do some experimentation with variable changes while we still had gravity,” Mailey says. “And then we were able to make a hypothesis about what would happen when we remove the force of gravity and only have lift.”

Students then constructed the objects they’d send with Mailey in the Zero-G simulator, fashioning the ends of two small cups together to make a tube-like gadget. To incorporate the Lower Schoolers in the experiment as well, Mailey, in partnership with Lower School STEAM Coordinator and Engineering teacher Frank Becker, asked the students to use Alex Wolf's pattern alphabet (pABC) to decorate the objects, in which they emblazoned the cups with various designs that would dance as the objects spun.

“The pattern alphabet is a way to organize different kinds of patterns and symmetries and asymmetries,” Mailey explains. “And with this cross-divisional collaboration, the Lower and Middle Schoolers were able to think about different kinds of swirl patterns and imagine what those patterns might do when put in motion for a really long time.”  

Dressed in a blue Zero-G space jumpsuit and Collegiate baseball cap, Mailey boarded the “vomit comet” with his students’ cylindrical objects. “As we began to take flight, I was taking a lot of advice on how to not feel nauseated during the trip,” Mailey says. “Dr. Cuttino told me to stick to my purpose, to focus, especially because, not only would we experience zero gravity but we would  also be experiencing double gravity or hypergravity on the downward parabola, which often makes you sick. So I had a very Zen-like purpose during hypergravity when I was preparing my cups for launch.”  

At the zero gravity segments of the roller coaster of maneuvers the plane took, Mailey launched the objects, which spun on endlessly. “It was incredible,” Mailey says. “And the students’ reactions from watching me conduct the experiments were equally awe-inspiring. They were enthusiastic because they got to confirm their lift hypotheses. I think this experience also showed them the work involved in experimentation — it showed them that experimentation requires a certain commitment to the inevitable trials and errors of science.” 

For Mailey, after reestablishing his relationship with gravity and his knotty stomach, he reflected that the experience reaffirmed the rigor and excitement involved in a Collegiate education. 

“For one thing, this whole experience speaks to the impact Collegiate alumni have on education — that people such as Dr. Cuttino are always thinking about how to expose current Collegiate students to exciting things in the industry,” he says. “That I got this opportunity is humbling. I think this is an indication of what a dynamic place Collegiate is. We get to ride on the cusp of  where science, engineering and art are going, weaving together a student experience that is full and rich with possibility.” 

Editor’s note: The items Mike Mailey brought with him on the Zero-G flight — a Collegiate baseball cap, a Collegiate foam football, a stuffed Collegiate Cougar and a Cougar Pride T-shirt — will be up for auction at the Spring Party & Auction.