The Worcester Telegram
By Paula J. Owen, Correspondent
FITCHBURG — In between flying in zero gravity conditions 35,000 feet up and heading to NASA to help conduct experiments in zero gravity, Tara L. Sweeney took time out last week (Nov. 6-9) to visit with area kids.
Ms. Sweeney, 44, a Fitchburg High School graduate and retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant who now lives in Las Vegas, works as flight director for Zero Gravity Corp. based in Arlington, Virginia. Her roles with the company include flight attendant, weightless laboratory scientist and flight team coach. The company specializes in parabolic flight operations that produce a microgravity environment in a Boeing 727B for private citizens, commercial customers, advanced-learning teams and government entities including NASA.
“I work on a parabolic flight crew,” she said on the phone Saturday while preparing for her flight Sunday to Orlando. “We fly a Boeing 727, 20,000 to 35,000 feet in a parabolic flight pattern. It’s like a big roller coaster in the sky. We get to a point in the parabola where we go weightless just like astronauts do by descending really fast at a 45-degree angle. At 35,000 feet, we nose the plane over and we’re diving back to earth really fast at several hundred miles an hour and experience free-fall and microgravity conditions.”
Those on board experience microgravity for 25 to 30 seconds at a time. Zero Gravity Corp. is the only provider of the service in the country, she says, and the company publishes its flight schedule on its website. People from around the world fly with the crew on adventure flights every weekend throughout the U.S. and the crew also does Hollywood movies, commercials and YouTube videos, she said.
“It’s fun,” Ms. Sweeney said. “We accomplish amazing things. Our next stop is Orlando to do NASA research with our teammates. We have flown astronauts in the past for training and for a nice joy ride.”
NASA, she said, used to fly a similar aircraft and run experiments, but the agency doesn’t do it anymore. Instead, it provides funding and flies with the Zero Gravity crew who help facilitate research.
While visiting Fitchburg schools — where she excelled as a youth in academics and sports — and the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster, Ms. Sweeney said she thanked them for the success in her life and hoped her visit inspired kids to continue on their quest and for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) teachers to stay in the community.
“When I was 10 years old in fifth grade at Crocker School, I set a goal to become an astronaut,” she said. “The school district has a new hashtag it is promoting to dream what you can’t do, yet. When I walk around in a flight suit, I’m often asked, ‘Are you an astronaut?’ I told the kids, I’m not an astronaut, yet, but I’m still working really hard toward that goal. I think that resonated with the kids that I’m 44 and still working towards the goal I set at 10.
“They have a robust STEM system here in the community,” she added. “I offered to help create a STEM mentor program to bring together a cadre of scientists as a resource to continue to play an interactive role in STEM development.”
She said she was also impressed with the kids she met at the Boys & Girls Club.
“I am so thoroughly impressed with Boys & Girls Club in general and specifically the caliber of the STEM program they have created there,” she said. “I feel like I answered 100 questions from a gymnasium full of kids, and every one was thoughtful about STEM and flight and space exploration. It was such a gift. Clearly the kids spend time at the club taking STEM to heart and educating themselves and setting themselves up for success.”
She said she is planning to return in February for a STEM event there.
Boys & Girls Club Executive Director Donata J. Martin, said that after Ms. Sweeney’s presentation, several high school juniors talked to her about applying to the U.S. Air Force Academy.
Topics she covered included how global warming can be seen from outer space and if there is time change in space, Ms. Martin said.
“She returns in February during vacation week to participate in our Space Camp,” Ms. Martin said. “We found out that we have many members interested in becoming astronauts or pursuing STEM careers in the myriad of fields affiliated with the space industry. … We have adopted Tara as one of our own.”