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John Bennewitz floats in zero-gravity.

John Bennewitz floats in zero-gravity.

Strapped to the cabin floor to prevent them from floating away, four Pitt engineers conducted aerospace research aboard a NASA C-9 aircraft this summer. While the jet plunged in zero-gravity dives above the Gulf of Mexico one morning, John Bennewitz turned a crank to pump water through a network of tubes.

“Six, seven, eight …” he shouted, counting how many times he turned the crank. José Bernardo observed the water flow and waited for a bubble to form and plug one of the tubes.

“Ok, stop!” Bernardo shouted the instant a bubble appeared.

Bennewitz and Bernardo were participating in NASA’s Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program, in which top undergraduates nationwide use NASA’s research facilities to investigate what happens to materials in conditions of weightlessness. Along with Pitt team members Michael Chrin (ENGR ’08) and Adam Wick (ENGR ’08), Bennewitz (ENGR ’08) and Bernardo (ENGR ’08) studied how water flows through differently shaped tubes. In space satellites, bubbles often accumulate in fuel lines; the team tested pipes with different angles to find out which shapes might best prevent blockages.

During their Pitt senior year, the four engineering majors spent months soliciting funds and developing their research project, which advisor Jeffrey Vipperman, a mechanical engineering and materials science professor, has compared to a master’s thesis. They also founded Pitt’s chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics to encourage other students to get involved in aerospace research. All four earned bachelor’s degrees this spring, then traveled to Houston as Pitt’s first-ever team in NASA’s reduced-gravity student program.

That morning in the C-9 aircraft, Bennewitz and Bernardo conducted 20 trials of their experiment. Then they unhooked their straps, floated up from the cabin floor, and spun flips in the air. They also unraveled a slinky while suspended, weightless, in the eerie silence. Together, they watched the metal coils waver in a slow-motion slink.

—Sam Ginsburg