Daphne van der Putte lived to tell the tale. She has just returned (in one piece) to the Netherlands, along with Delft University of Technology student Anne Arntz and EUR student Christopher Hauwert, following a spectacular adventure near Bordeaux, where her VESTAND team was conducting experiments involving the vestibular system (the sensory system that gives us a sense of balance and spatial orientation) in a state of weightlessness.

To this end, the team had to transport two pieces of equipment built at Erasmus MC to southern France. Two weeks ago Chris, Anne and Daphne departed in a hired mini-van. “We set off for southern France on a Sunday morning,” Daphne says on the phone. Their destination: the NoveSpace building at a military air base near Bordeaux. Once they arrived on location, the three students had one week to make all their preparations.

Team member Patrick Forbes test-performs the balance experiment at Studio Erasmus. Source: www.youtube.com
Team VESTAND, including the study subjects. Image credit: VESTAND

The VESTAND team, which, in addition to Daphne, is comprised of students Anne Arntz, Christopher Hauwert and Zeb Jonker, postdoctoral researcher Patrick Forbes and full professor Maarten Frens, is researching the effect of gravity on the vestibular system and the perception of movement and the body’s position. Thanks to the European Space Agency Education Office’s ‘Fly Your Thesis!’ programme, VESTAND, as well as other European research groups, was allowed to conduct experiments during a parabolic flight session aboard an Airbus owned by a French company called NoveSpace, situated in Bordeaux. The team’s Facebook page presents many more videos and photos, as well as more information on the project.

One of the two pieces of equipment looks like an ‘electric chair’. The study subject will take place in the chair, and the helmet he/she wears on his/her head will give off mild electric shocks in order to affect the vestibular system. By means of special glasses, the team will then measure the effect of these electric shocks by following the subject’s eye movements. The other piece of equipment involves the subject standing upright, after which he/she will be pulled towards the ground by means of springs. At the same time, his/her balance will be affected by means of stimulation of the vestibular system. “When we arrived, we had to check the equipment and carefully clean each component.” This was done in a special cleaning room with a high-pressure pump. “It is important that no pieces of metal can come off, because if they start floating during weightlessness, someone may get injured,” says Daphne.

After cleaning, the three students had to install the chair and the upright piece of equipment in the plane, which was a precision job. “The components had to be fixed in place on the plane with screws. This required holes to be drilled in exactly the right spots, down to the millimetre.” After many tests and measurements, it was found that no more drilling would be required: the equipment was successfully installed. Following a test aboard the grounded plane, the team was finally allowed to take to the air in the second week.

‘Incomparable experience’

Each parabola has several stages. While the plane is climbing, the people on board experience hypergravity, which makes you feel twice as heavy as usual. Then there is microgravity, which makes you feel weightless, then another bout of hypergravity, and then it is back to regular gravity. And then the whole process starts from scratch again, 31 times per flight. The most obvious comparison would be an extreme roller coaster, but Daphne rejects that comparison. “This is an incomparable experience. It is so special. You are in a tube, and you can’t see a thing because the blinds on the windows are down. The only thing you notice is the fact that gravity changes.”

It was a pretty wild experience, though. Daphne noticed during the flight that her vision was getting blurry, and not everyone managed to keep their food inside. Daphne was not entirely successful in this regard, either, despite a scopolamine injection (scopolamine is a medication used to treat motion sickness). She had to vomit during the tenth parabola. “Weirdly enough, this happened exactly at the moment when gravity returned to normal. Later on, when we saw the measurements, we saw that the forces exerted on our bodies were around 1G at the time, which is to say, close to normal, but not entirely normal. Maybe it was because of that,” she posits. She did not have to vomit during the next twenty parabolas, but just before the end of the session she threw up one last time.

Vomit comet

The aeroplane in which the experiments were carried out Image credit: Maarten Frens

During the 31st and final parabola, Daphne spent a little bit of time in the ‘free-floating area’, a part of the plane where no experiments were being conducted, and where every participant could experience for a brief moment what it was like to be weightless. “An ESA instructor had me spinning around. I closed my eyes to see if I could tell I was spinning, but you don’t feel anything at all. It was a lot of fun, but I did throw up again.”

Aboard the aeroplane, which is jokingly called the ‘vomit comet’ by insiders, half the team’s study subjects felt nauseous. Which is understandable, because in order to ensure the experiments involving the vestibular system were ‘pure’, the subjects had not been allowed to take any medication against nausea. And since the experiments affected their vestibular system as well, the subjects basically needed stomachs made of armed titanium.

Thankfully, certain subjects turned out to have those. “Most had done parabolic flights before,” says Daphne. “For instance, one of them was a jet fighter pilot – a really well-built guy who was very keen on taking part. When we subjected him to the test where we mess with people’s vestibular system, in which nearly everyone falls over, he stayed upright,” Daphne says admiringly. Only one subject had to prematurely withdraw from the experiment because he was feeling too nauseated. “He wanted to keep going, but the doctor advised against it.”

By now Daphne and Anne have returned to uni. They hardly have time to recover from their adventure. All the data were properly transmitted, but they now have to check whether all the measurements were carried out correctly. Daphne hopes to finish her thesis by late July; Anne hopes to complete hers by late February. “And our goal is to write an article about it, too,” Daphne says in conclusion.