Doing Real Science (and Break Dancing) in Zero Gravity


Rohin Francis, MBBS, joins the European Space Agency and NASA for a science-centered parabolic flight.

The following is a partial transcript of this video; note that errors are possible.

Francis: Oh, man. I’m dizzy as hell. Everything’s spinning.

Space medicine is pretty cool. I have talked about it on the channel quite a lot, but how do you actually test what happens in zero gravity? Well, do experiments on the International Space Station, of course, yes.

But, A) there are only ever a few astronauts up there at a time. They have got tons of other stuff to do, so it’s highly unlikely your experiment will get chosen. B) If your experiment does get chosen, you don’t want to waste all that precious astronaut time doing the preliminary stuff. You want all the prep done. You want to know whatever you’re testing is feasible. Most importantly, C) I won’t get to do any of that because surprise, surprise, my application to become an ESA astronaut never got off the launch pad. Yes. For some reason, me writing a 16-page manifesto about my social media clout and the promise to re-enact the Doctor Manhattan meme in space failed to impress the Astronaut Selection Committee that only chooses a few super-dedicated, utterly exceptional people less than once a decade. Their loss.

But another department of the European Space Agency did get in touch with me — a better department, let’s be honest — and they asked if I wanted to do a weightlessness flight. I said, “I don’t know. I mean, any old science influencer does them these days.”

They said, “No, no, no. This isn’t some commercial fun flight just for laughs. This is a flying laboratory with real science being done” that I can take part in. I said, “Okay. I do hate frivolity and I like my science to be completely serious, but this still seems so run of the mill.”

They said, “We’ll give you two flights instead of one.” I was like, “Yeah. Maybe sweeten the deal a bit.” They said, “You’ll be weightless for a total of 23 minutes. That’s more than Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, Derek, and Simone put together.” I said, “You son of a b***h. I’m in.” Obviously, that isn’t quite how it went.

To understand the physics of parabolic flights, you should watch those people that I cheekily mentioned just now because they have made some fantastic videos that explain many aspects of weightlessness training. Instead, what I’m going to concentrate on today is the biomedical science that’s done on board. Because, to reiterate, many “vomit comets,” as they’re often known, are commercial operations that anybody can just pay for and fly on. They tend to do maybe 15 or so parabolae, each of which gives you about 22 to 25 seconds of weightlessness, whereas the Novespace Airbus A310 that I went on is first and foremost a science campaign with one, just one, spot for a media person.

In fact, even though the U.S. has a few companies operating these kinds of flights, this is the real deal from a science perspective. A team from NASA came all the way to France just to use this plane. They even used my neck in their study, more on that later.

The day before the first flight, we had our orientation and checks.

Neil Melville: This plane is old enough to have all proper controls. It’s not fly-by-wire computers stopping you from doing kind of stupid things, but still very young in terms of flight hours because it’s not like a commercial plane that’s been all over the place. It’s a really good candidate for this.

Francis: Well, I have just had my pre-test checks for the jugular flow study and apparently my jugular is juicy, so they’re going to take me in the study, very nice, and that happens tomorrow.

We are on the parabolic flight on the way up, yet to make the first parabola. I’m sitting next to Neil Melville, who is the director of parabolic flights at ESA. Is that right?

Melville: The ESA Parabolic Flight Coordinator.

Francis: Coordinator. Neil, I think you’ve described it before as a flying laboratory.

Melville: Yeah, it really is a flying laboratory. It’s really quite unique because there are so many different types of experiments that are onboard in this very small space and different teams from all over Europe are investigating loads of really different things.

Francis: Onboard for this campaign we had a whole bunch of physics experiments, which were fascinating. But you don’t really want me attempting to explain them in any detail. I can tell you that we had experiments about novel ways to safely deorbit satellites instead of blasting them out of the sky, like the Russian government recently did. One about attitude correction for tiny femto satellites, one about heat transfer in zero gravity because you don’t have the usual convection currents, one about the Dzhanibekov effect. If you don’t know what the Dzhanibekov effect is, I mean, frankly, I don’t know what to tell you. No, I mean I don’t know what to tell you.

Melville: There are really loads of different stuff onboard, and also a few biomedical experiments.

Rohin Francis, MBBS, is an interventional cardiologist, internal medicine doctor, and university researcher who makes science videos and bad jokes. Offbeat topics you won’t find elsewhere, enriched with a government-mandated dose of humor. Trained in Cambridge; now PhD-ing in London.

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