Princeton woman defies gravity

Takes part in NASA outreach program.

By: Aleen Crispino
   Elizabeth Romanaux, vice president of marketing at Liberty Science Center in Jersey City and a resident of Princeton Township, went to work on July 30 by stepping aboard a KC-135A aircraft at the NASA Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston.
   After reaching an altitude of 25,000 feet, within minutes, the plane dropped 8,000 feet, the pilot shouted "over the top," and after a second or two delay everything and everyone began to float up and become weightless, Ms. Romanaux said.
   Ms. Romanaux was part of a group of 10, including three other science center staff and four students and two teachers from William L. Dickinson High School in Jersey City, who took part in a NASA Reduced Gravity Research Program outreach program to science centers. The purpose of the pilot outreach program is to increase NASA’s public awareness, and Liberty Science Center was the first to be chosen of over 400 science centers in the country, Ms. Romanaux said.
   The students in a scientific research class made up of high school sophomores and juniors designed and helped to build eight experiments that could be performed to test the effects of zero gravity. Of these, two experiments were accepted by NASA and the four students who had designed them became part of the trip, said Ms. Romanaux. As the students were under 18 and not permitted to go up in the aircraft, Ms. Romanaux and another staff member were chosen to partner with the two teachers and perform the experiments while the plane executed 32 parabolas, or bowl-shaped curves.
   "It was sort of like swimming without the water," said Ms. Romanaux of her experience with weightlessness. "For some reason your feet float up and you end up with your head down and feet up. Then they yell ‘feet down, coming out’ meaning out of zero gravity." If they didn’t warn passengers, they would fall to the ground on their heads as the plane climbed out of the drop, Ms. Romanaux said.
   The first experiment, performed by Ms. Romanaux during the third 8,000-foot drop, was to use a syringe to inject two chemicals together in a dark box with a camera, which created bioluminescence. As hypothesized by the students, zero gravity decreased both "the intensity and duration of the glow," Ms. Romanaux said.
   The second experiment placed a group of hissing Madagascar cockroaches from the science center’s collection in a box to observe whether they made efforts to reorient themselves in space during zero gravity, using their antennae and other sensory organs. The exotic cockroaches, which measure four to six inches in length, tried to "jam themselves in a corner of the box" each time the plane dropped, Ms. Romanaux said, thereby confirming the students’ hypothesis.
   Ms. Romanaux, 49, describes herself as a "lifelong science geek." She studied geology at Wellesley College before entering the marketing field.
   "I love science and I’m good at communicating," she said. "I spend my career communicating science to the public."
   The only practice they had as a group was a session in a chamber that simulated the lower oxygen level that would be present at 25,000 feet. Ms. Romanaux also prepared for the flight by swimming "100 laps a week for six months" at the Princeton Fitness and Wellness Center, affiliated with the University Medical Center at Princeton. Only passing a physical was required by NASA, but she decided to undertake the exercise regimen on her own.
   "I felt it would make good sense for someone in my age group," said Ms. Romanaux.
   Ms. Romanaux was partnered with a technology teacher from Dickinson High School and flew on July 30, with another team of two adults going up the day before. The plane they used, the KC-135, has the same design as the commercial Boeing 707 passenger plane.
   Ms. Romanaux suffered no ill effects from her experience of weightlessness. On the contrary, "I was elated," she said.
   She stressed the value of the experience for the four teenagers who traveled with her to the Houston Space Center.
   "These inner-city kids met astronauts and flight doctors" and visited an underwater neutral buoyancy chamber, she said. "In 10 days their view of themselves and their future changed. They were hanging out with college kids from Harvard, MIT and Duke who took their experiments seriously. It was really inspirational."
   The Reduced Gravity Research Program has been hosting college students for years but getting high school students involved through the science center is something new, Ms. Romanaux said.