SCC: Caroline Wright defies gravity with NASA

Grand-Am Cup Driver Defies Gravity for Science Caroline Wright Flies on NASA's Famed Vomit Comet (Houston, TX - Sept. 28, 2004) - Grand American Cup Series driver Caroline Wright took part in an experiment on board NASA's Weightless Wonder V, ...

Grand-Am Cup Driver Defies Gravity for Science
Caroline Wright Flies on NASA's Famed Vomit Comet

(Houston, TX - Sept. 28, 2004) - Grand American Cup Series driver Caroline Wright took part in an experiment on board NASA's Weightless Wonder V, perhaps better known by its nickname, "The Vomit Comet." The KC-135 aircraft is used by the space agency to simulate weightlessness for research and astronaut training.

Wright was assigned to film and document a free-floating experiment, "the Bargmann Drive" in zero-g. The drive is a new propulsion system intended for use in long range space travel. After two hours and 50 parabolas on the K-Bird, Caroline's feet still haven't touched the ground.

"What an unbelievable ride," exclaimed Wright. "Calling it fun is a gross understatement. The sensation of weightlessness is far beyond anything you could ever get from skydiving or roller coasters. The euphoria was equal to what I felt after winning the Grand-Am Cup race at Daytona in 2003, perhaps greater. Given the chance, I'll do it again in a heartbeat."

Caroline's opportunity to fly and float was not by chance. "The Bargmann Drive" was designed by her husband, Jay Wright. Jay is a NASA engineer as well as a former road racer. In 1993, he was permanently paralyzed by a devastating racing incident at Road Atlanta. His disabilities have not kept him from work or racing. However, it prevented him from going up one the KC-135. He designated Caroline to oversee the experiment in his place.

Like all candidates for the flight, Caroline had to pass a stringent medical screening process, complete extensive training and receive NASA approval based on her qualifications as a media specialist. Caroline Wright sat out the 2004 race season to prepare for the flight.

"This has been a long time coming," replied Caroline. "Jay worked very hard to get this experiment off the ground. I was honored that he asked me to go; that he had that much faith in my abilities to get the job done. The fact that he named the system after my late father made it all the more special. My dad was inventive, inquisitive and adventurous. He would have been completely jazzed by this project."

"The project is still very much in its infancy," said Jay Wright. "Part I was the math model. On paper, it works. The next step was to test a working model on the air-bearing floor, which is like a giant air hockey table. That test was encouraging, but you must have a weightless environment to draw any accurate conclusions."

The first concern Jay expressed to Caroline immediately after the flight was not about his experiment, but about the notorious motion sickness.

"I am proud to say I never lost it, not even close," said Caroline. "I was prepared to deal with, well...you know. I don't know if racing experience was a factor. Fortunately, no one on our team got sick, but there were a few others on the aircraft that did. You have to be cautious with your head movement and visual field so as not to freak out your inner ear. I think my inner ear was busy being distracted by my inner child."

Jay Wright will spend the next few weeks analyzing data from the "Bargmann Drive" test. He expects to publish his findings later this year. He plans to continue his research and development of the "Bargmann Drive" with future tests.

HOW DOES THE WEIGHTLESS WONDER WORK?

NASA's Reduced Gravity Program was started in 1959 to investigate human and hardware reactions to operating in a weightless environment. The reduced gravity environment is obtained with a specially modified KC-135A turbojet transport, which flies parabolic arcs to produce weightless periods of 20 to 25 seconds. The KC-135A can also provide short periods of lunar (1/6) and Martian (1/3) gravity.

Approximately 80,000 parabolas have been flown in support of the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, Space Shuttle, and Space Station programs. Wright's experiment was one of the last few tests that will fly on the KC-135. In a few weeks, the K-Bird will be retired from service. It will be replaced by a DC-10 which would cost less to maintain and have more capacity for training and experiments.

WHY DO THEY CALL IT THE "VOMIT COMET?

This up and down sequence can easily cause disturbances in the inner ear and may result in and episode of motion sickness, hence the nickname for the flight. Anti-nausea medication is administered to everyone before the flight, but it is no guarantee against getting sick. All flyers carry small baggies in the flight suit pockets that can be grabbed and opened at a moment's notice. A flight surgeon is also on board to monitor for complications

LOOSE ODDS & ENDS

"The inside of the aircraft is padded floor to ceiling," said Caroline Wright. "It's a good thing too, because I beaned my head on the ceiling a number of times. Experiments are also padded. Loose objects and open fluid containers are a total no-no. You have to be very careful. Moving around in zero-g is not as easy as you would think. It's hard to stay in control. You can hang on to upper straps or secure your feet with straps on the floor.

"Parabolas are flown in sets of 10. We did five sets with four long turn-arounds. That gave us about a 5-minute break between sets to make changes to the experiment. Our flight originated from Ellington Field, just north of Johnson Space Center, southeast of downtown Houston. Our flight plan put us over the Gulf of Mexico, approximately 120 miles SSE of Galveston.

"Our experiment was the only free floating experiment that day. We were allocated 1/3 of the aircraft. Our experiment ended early, so we had lots of time and room to play, flip, bounce, float and fly."

BACKGROUND: Caroline Wright

Caroline Wright, a major market radio-broadcasting veteran, made her professional racing debut in 1996. In 1999, she finished 15th in the prestigious Rolex 24 at Daytona, her first Rolex 24 start. In 2001, Wright competed in a limited schedule of World Challenge GT events. Wright was the first woman to win a Grand-Amp Cup Series race when she drove to a Grand-Am Cup STII Class victory at Daytona in January 2003.

Wright was the PA announcer for the Trans-Am Series, the first woman to serve as a series anchor announcer for a major professional racing series. She was also the first woman to announce a CART race when she co-anchored the Texaco Grand Prix of Houston from 1998-2001. Wright also provided track PA color commentary for Trans Am and Speedvision World Challenge racing. Presently she serves as the voice of Mazda Rev It.

-gofazt-

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Series Grand-Am
Drivers Caroline Wright