The Vomit Comet

By C. Eugene Emery Jr. / September / October 1999
November 7th, 2007

Suturing a wound requires skill, even in the best of circumstances. A curved needle attached to a thread is locked in clamps, and "you pull up one side of the skin and insert the needle through in a curving motion,'' explains Lauren Yates, '00. "Then you put it through the other side of the incision in a curved motion." To tie off the suture, "you take the clamp and wrap the thread around it twice. Then you open the clamp, grasp the free end of the thread, and pull it through."

Now imagine trying to do this in the hold of a cargo plane as it flies a roller-coaster-like path, rapidly rising to 32,000 feet, diving to 24,000 feet - and then repeating the maneuver twenty-nine times. At the top of every parabola, you lose all sense of gravity and become, briefly, weightless.

You also risk losing your lunch.

Yet that's how a group of Brown students spent part of their summer vacation. For two days in August, Yates, along with Hannah Cohen '00, Benita Wong '00, Heather Goldsmith '02, and Jessica Meir '99, flew aboard a KC-135A cargo plane and withstood the extremes of zero gravity and double gravity, trying to play surgeons in an operating room like no other. People floated above and beside them; cables drifted nearby; Beanie Babies bobbed in midair, each restrained by a tiny tether; syringes, thread, and everything else in the operating field strained at their Velcro anchors; and a spinning student tried to control his motion with a device that looked like a Darth Maul double-bladed light saber.

To complicate matters, the twenty-five second intervals of weightlessness were flanked by fifty-five seconds when each woman's whole body, from her head to the pit of her stomach, felt encased in lead. This relentless shuttling from no gravity to double gravity is what gives the plane its nickname: The Vomit Comet.

All this, for science.

The purpose of the experiment, which was conducted as part of a NASA program aimed at allowing students to pursue research under zero-gravity conditions, was to learn whether traditional suturing or using a high-tech medical glue called Dermabond is the best way for astronauts to close wounds in a world where up and down don't apply.

It's an important question. Surgery in space may not be a vital issue today, when space shuttle flights are relatively brief and can be aborted for a medical emergency. But NASA is building a space station, hopes to return to the moon, and dreams of launching a manned flight to Mars, a trip that would take two years or more. Someone on board will need to know how to operate on the float.

That's all fine for NASA, but as far as the students are concerned, the Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program is a chance to briefly fulfill a Star Trek fantasy. The program includes some brief astronaut training, including sitting in a chamber that simulates the effect of running out of oxygen at an altitude of 25,000 feet.

The idea for the trip came from a fifth-year M.D.-Ph.D. student named Peter Lee, who hopes one day to become an astronaut himself and who in 1998 managed to get a muscle-cell experiment onto a space shuttle flight (see "When Size Matters," Elms, November/December 1998). When Lee heard about NASA's zero gravity program, it looked like a good opportunity to extend his research and feed his fascination with space. But because the program was restricted to undergraduates, he says, "I needed a group of people who would be interested in this" - and who would be willing to go on the Vomit Comet.

Meir, a biology concentrator who worked in the same lab as Lee, was an easy sell. A space junkie herself, she is now working on a Master of Space Studies degree at the International Space University in Strasbourg, France. Meir had heard about the Vomit Comet program during her sophomore year and had already participated in a training program at the Kennedy Space Center. "I've wanted to do this forever," she says, or at least ever since she first saw the video of students floating around in the plane. "I wanted to be an astronaut all my life. Being weightless is just another step."

The next recruit was Goldsmith, a Salt Lake City native who became enamored with space exploration while taking ge 0005, Mars, Moon and the Earth, with Professor of Geological Sciences James Head. Urging her to combine her growing passion for space with her interest in biology, Head steered Goldsmith to another faculty member, who in turn sent her to Lee. Answering the telephone early one morning, she heard Lee inviting her to take the ride of her life.

Lee, who in addition to his academic research teaches Tae Kwon Do, then persuaded two of his martial-arts students to sign up. After mulling over his offer for two days, Cohen, also a biology concentrator, said yes, as did Wong, a chemistry concentrator and one of Cohen's roommates. Another roommate was Yates, who one day heard Cohen and Wong talking about the project. "I said, 'That's really neat. Do you think Peter needs an extra person?'" Yates, an English major, recalls. "So I invited myself to the party."

Unfortunately, only four students could fly on the plane. So, in true NASA style, Cohen decided to pass on the immediate thrill in return for a professional boost: she would be the backup in exchange for being named a top author in the research paper the team hopes to write from its experiments. "I may have a chance later on a future flight,'' she says.

Knowing that the space agency wouldn't want scalpels, needles, and skin glue floating free, the women next built two Plexiglas boxes with arm holes on one side to allow them to operate without having objects drift too far. Anticipating the effects of enduring double gravity, they decided to operate while sitting on the floor to allow them to quickly lie back if they became woozy. Recognizing that bodies come crashing to the floor each time gravity returns, they padded every corner of their boxes with foam. The suturing materials and the training to use them came from doctors at Miriam Hospital, while Ethicon, a division of Johnson & Johnson, donated the skin adhesive. For "patients," the students used pig's feet, purchased from local supermarkets for thirty-eight cents apiece. On August 1, their Plexiglas boxes complete and their suturing skills honed from practice (sometimes under the glare of TV lights as Providence stations got wind of their upcoming adventure), the five women boarded a flight to Houston.

After a day of logistical details and practicing their experiments, on Tuesday morning the students begin their training. This includes six hours of lectures on weightlessness, motion sickness, safety precautions, and altitude sickness. Among the subjects covered are blown sinus cavities, teeth that explode when a gas pocket becomes trapped inside, and a quaintly named condition known as "the chokes," in which accumulated gas results in painful breathing. So goes the introduction to the dreaded chamber run.

Donning claustrophobic pilot masks that grip like face-huggers in the Alien movies and make you aware of every inhalation, the students are ushered into a huge pressure tank. Once they are seated, the air is removed from the chamber to simulate a flight to 25,000 feet. Then the women, along with students from a handful of other universities, are told to unclip one side of their masks. And breathe.

Surprisingly, there's no sense of suffocation. Instead, your thinking gets fuzzy. Your motor skills evaporate in a haze of confusion. Some people lose the ability to do a simple connect-the-dots puzzle. Some people start to look like a Blue Smurf, while others turn bright red. Some get giddy; others zone out completely. In rare cases, some act as if they're auditioning for The Jerry Springer Show.

"Do you think you could drive your car in this condition?" one of the test directors asks a student after about two or three minutes on low oxygen.

"No," he answers.

"Do you think you could find your car in this condition?"


Given the conditions aboard the Vomit Comet, NASA advises all students to design experiments that can run with as little effort as possible. The Brown women, how- ever, have taken a more ambitious route. Their experiment requires fine motor control and attention to detail, both of which can quickly bring on motion sickness. The women will glue two five-centimeter-long incisions together and suture two others, using red dots on the side of each wound to assess the efficacy of their stitches. Waiting in Houston for their flight on the KC-135A, the women spent their evenings in the hotel room practicing, trying to refine a parabola-by-parabola plan.

"Oh! The Dermabond doesn't work! The horror! The tragedy! I have to get off the plane!" Yates theatrically lamented during one mock drill.

"We're floating, we're floating," Meir moaned, trying to sound like a modern-day Alice stepping into Wonderland.

A few days later, it's their turn to go. "So, this is your final resting place," test director Judy Rickard tells the women while they are hanging a Brown banner from a support strap in the KC-135A.

"I don't like the sound of that," says Cohen.

"Nesting place! I said nesting place," Richard insists as she moves to the next experiment.

Everything on this plane is padded. The floors are sheets of white foam with metal rings protruding here and there for tying down people and equipment. The walls are also padded in white, except for the ventilation duct at the apex of the dome. Support straps run the length of the plane just above the windows, giving fliers something to grab onto during weightless periods. And boxes of fifteen-inch-wide, three-ply tissues are duct-taped to the floor - just in case.

Yates's and Meir's flight is scheduled for August 11. Fitted with green flight suits, they watch a safety video explaining how to climb out of the plane on a rope and are issued motion sickness pills. Barf bags are handed out in small manila envelopes. Everyone is told to take the white plastic bags out of the envelopes, to open them up, and to stuff one into each vest pocket of the flight suit with a corner sticking out for easy access. Then Yates and Meir, fourteen other students, and four journalists are sent to their seats at the back of the plane.

Not long after the KC-135A is airborne, lead test director John Janiec jumps up from his seat, glances out a window, and shouts, "Okay, guys. Let's rock and roll." The students unbuckle themselves and head for their experiments, walking uphill as the plane climbs, heading toward the Gulf of Mexico. Yates and Meir shed the top part of their flight suits and fasten restraining straps tightly across their laps. "I can't believe we're doing this," Yates shouts to Meir when the first parabola is only four minutes away. The engines grow louder as the pilots accelerate to the plane's top speed of 550 knots. Everyone starts feeling heavier. The roller-coaster ride has begun.

As the plane crests and begins to descend, Meir and Yates put their hands over their heads, as if they're on an amusement-park roller coaster. As their bodies float upward for the first time, their whoops degenerate into uncontrolled laughter. The base of the Brown banner quickly breaks from its Velcro restraint and starts to fold in on itself. People who aren't tied down discover themselves plastered to the ceiling. The stuffed animals are levitating.

Twenty-six seconds later, a shout of "Feet down! Comin' out!" sweeps through the cabin, a warning to get feet pointed toward the floor so the students can land on them when double gravity kicks in. This is when the process of getting sick usually begins. Generally, about half the students on such a flight get sick, often because they can't restrain themselves from tumbling during the initial parabolas. Fortunately for the Brown team, their experiments require them to remain strapped in a seated position so they can quickly get their hands in the Plexiglas boxes to complete another stitch or two during the all-too-brief periods of weightlessness.

Meir and Yates are finding that the glue works well for sealing the cuts in their pig's foot. The sutures are trickier, depending, as they do, on how the women are feeling on their strange ride. Meir would later say that the only time she felt a little queasy was when double gravity kicked in. Yates, on the other hand, uses her motion sickness bags twice, once while working on the experiment and once after trying some tumbles while floating free in the cabin. She can't resist.

By the final parabola, nine students and journalists have gotten sick; in the NASA lexicon, these are referred to as "kills." At one point, the parabolic runs are halted because one student has erupted before he can pull out a bag. As people fall ill, they are ushered to the seats at the back of the plane. Some are so ill they bow out of the group picture that is taken at the end of the ninety-minute flight.

"The hardest part," Yates says later, "was watching the other people get sick."

Cohen and Wong have their turn aboard the Vomit Comet the following day. They do extraordinarily well. Neither student becomes ill, and Wong's sutures in particular are flawless.

Once their flights are over, the women regroup. Their original plan was to remain in Houston and spend the day after their flights testing the roller coasters at Six Flags's AstroWorld. Instead, they now opt to fly home the next day. Their reasoning is simple: after a ride on the Vomit Comet, no other roller coaster will do.

"Oh, this was so worth it," Yates says. "I'm still floating."

Vomit Comet veteran C. Eugene Emery Jr. is a reporter for the Providence Journal.

What do you think?
See what other readers are saying about this article and add your voice. 
Related Issue
September / October 1999