Rice University
Rice Magazine| The Magazine of Rice University | No. 3 | 2009

Finding Your Way When You Don’t Weigh a Thing

Many people resolved to lose weight this year, but Kathryn “Kate” Montgomery ’09 and her student colleagues from six other universities aspired to be weightless.

Montgomery, a bioengineering major, served as both an investigator and a test subject in an experiment to examine how a person’s sense of direction is impacted by lack of gravity and whether a simple device can improve the ability to navigate. The students, mentored by Scott Wood of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, planned details of the experiment while working as interns last summer at the NASA Johnson Space Center.

“We use our sense of gravity as an anchor to orient ourselves, but in a microgravity environment, the sense of down isn’t clear, and that can cause problems when navigating around a large space craft like the space station,” said Wood. “The inner ear plays a role in detecting your orientation relative to gravity, so some patients with inner-ear disorders have similar navigation problems.”

The students tested a belt-like device to determine if it improved navigation ability. The wide belt contained a series of equally spaced pagerlike vibrators that signaled the direction of the floor to the wearer. The experiment was conducted in an aircraft that simulates weightlessness, or microgravity, by going into steep dives. A chair aboard the aircraft was fixed in a tilted position that could be rotated and then locked into any one of 360 degrees. One student served as the subject, seated in the chair wearing sound-canceling earphones and virtual-reality goggles, and the other students ran the experiment.

During each microgravity period of the flight, the subject was turned in the chair to a random position and shown an image in their goggles of a location in the plane — cockpit, rear, or left or right side. Using a hand controller, the subject then indicated the direction needed to travel to get to that area of the plane. During the experiment, the subjects were randomly tested with and without the belt’s cues.

The students will analyze the results to determine if the belt improved a person’s ability to navigate while in microgravity. They hope to publish the results of the study in a scientific journal, but the immediate benefit of the study will be to elementary- and middle-school classes in the students’ hometowns.

“Each of us committed to give presentations to local schools,” Montgomery said. “We hope to teach younger students a little about microgravity and our experiment while showing them that science can definitely be fun.”

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But the belt’s usefulness doesn’t stop there. It also could be modified for use in extravehicular activities on the moon — vibrators could be programmed to fire in the direction a crew member needs to go. In addition, it could become an aid for patients with neurological disorders experiencing navigation problems.

The student research was supported by funds from the National Space Biomedical Research Institute and the private corporation Excalibur Almaz and was conducted through NASA’s Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program.

Kate Montgomery was both researcher and guinea pig in an experiment to learn if a simple tactile device can improve a person’s sense of direction in a weightless environment. Discover how Rice’s Centennial Campaign is helping prepare Rice students for the world by visiting www.rice.edu/centennialcampaign