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Zero-G travel was a dream come true for MIT senior

Senior Tyra Rivkin wears the helmet her team designed and built for testing peripheral vision in NASA's microgravity aircraft.
Senior Tyra Rivkin wears the helmet her team designed and built for testing peripheral vision in NASA's microgravity aircraft.
Photo / Donna Coveney

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- An airplane ride that turned your stomach, flipped your body and made you forget how to do simple arithmetic would be a nightmare for most people, but for graduating senior Tyra Rivkin, it was a dream come true.

She and nine other undergraduates from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology rode NASA's KC-135 aircraft -- a modified 707 that travels in quick parabolic loops to mimic the reduced gravity of space travel -- as part of a research program at the Johnson Space Center near Houston.

The KC-135 achieves near-zero gravity, giving its riders the thrill of floating around the cabin for a few minutes on every loop. The flight can be mentally disorienting, causing even MIT students to forget how to solve basic math problems during zero-G. And then there's the tendency to lose one's lunch, which occurs with such frequency that the aircraft is better known by its moniker, the "vomit comet." (NASA calls it the "weightless wonder.")

"I have dreamed of flying on the KC since I was about seven years old -- about the same time I decided to come to MIT. Actually attaining that goal was absolutely unforgettable," said Ms. Rivkin, an aeronautics and astronautics major who made the zero-G ride in March to do research on peripheral vision in space travel.

She and her team members, biology juniors Julie Gesch and Mark Sun, and junior Stephanie Chen of aeronautics and astronautics, designed and built a helmet to test peripheral vision in microgravity and hypergravity. In microgravity conditions, blood flow to the brain increases, but researchers don't know exactly what effect that has on peripheral vision. They do know that during hypergravity, fighter pilots experience a decrease in blood flow to the brain and a reduction in peripheral vision called "gray out" or "tunnel vision."

On the KC-135, team members took turns donning the light-blocking helmet equipped with two tiny lights used to test peripheral vision during reduced and increased gravity conditions.

"The helmet creates a totally dark environment, so the canceling of all visual cues led to some interesting outcomes and notable points," said Ms. Rivkin. "Once entering zero-G when wearing the helmet, we all had the feeling of being flipped over onto our heads and hanging upside down. The feeling was so striking that I could actually imagine that someone was physically taking my legs and flipping me onto my head."

Even though the results of their experiment were inconclusive, the team learned quite a bit about flying in space.

"We missed a lot of what was going on around us in our peripheral vision field because our minds were so focused on acclimatizing to the physical changes and stress of the flight," said Ms. Rivkin, who has taken a job with Allied Signal Aerospace in Phoenix. She plans to return to graduate school in a few years to continue her research in space science.

"I am entering the coolest field in the world, and I can't wait to get started working on real products that reach real people!" she said.

For the leadership role she played in the KC-135 research project, the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics awarded Ms. Rivkin the Apollo Program Prize.

"I was totally shocked by this because the Apollo Award has always seemed like something unattainable for someone like me -- I'm not a 5.0 superwoman -- and I was very honored to be recognized in this way," she said. The award comes with a certificate, $500, a "really cool picture of an Earthrise" mounted in a nice frame, and two VIP tickets to a space shuttle launch. "I think I'm going to try to see a night launch with my 14-year-old sister," said Ms. Rivkin.

Another senior, Christopher Carr of Seattle, received a departmental award (the Admiral Luis de Florez Award for Original Thinking or Ingenuity) for his research in the same program. Mr. Carr and his teammates tested a flexible wearable computer system that serves as a biomonitoring device. He said of his KC-135 experience: "If I had any doubts before flying on the KC-135 that humans were meant to live and work in space, the doubts are gone now!"

Ms. Rivkin, who was home-schooled until high school, said her mother encouraged her and her three sisters to fully explore the topics that interested them.

"I spent most of my childhood education reading books on astronomy and space sciences, as well as reading every book I could find on the astronaut program," said Ms. Rivkin. "I have wanted to fly in space ever since I was little. I can't remember a time when I didn't want to work in astronomy or space science related fields."

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