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Six Flags as a science lab and cow gut spelunkers: Fantastic tales from the field

On tears and rocket fuel


Peter Oumanski

“I still choke up over that motor.”

Victor Singer, former Structural Engineer for Orbital ATK

My first interplanetary rocket motor was a ­solid-fuel ­Star-24. I can still picture it: 24 inches in diameter, almost spherical, with a nozzle sticking out. That nozzle was mine. I designed it. NASA employed the Star-24 on its 1978 Pioneer Venus multiprobe, which studied the planet’s atmosphere. Once the probe reached orbit, the rocket’s job was to slow the Pioneer enough so it would fall toward Venus, gathering data until it burned up. During the week prior to launch, the company left our newly minted design in the final assembly building so we could say goodbye. I remember it was there in the shipping box. I stepped in, put my arms around the motor, and I cried. It’s a privilege to put your hands on a rocket destined for another planet. I still choke up over that motor. It’s a piece of me.

As told to Sara Chodosh

Six Flags is my science lab

six flags ride

Peter Oumanski

“Luckily it took me only 25 runs.”

Larry Chickola, Chief Corporate Engineer, Six Flags

I’m responsible for all of Six Flags’ amusements, from the kiddie rides to the roller coasters, in all 18 parks in North America. Right now we’re considering making a new roof for Zumanjaro, the world’s tallest drop tower.

The seats have mesh roofs to protect riders as they shoot 415 feet into the air and plunge into free-fall. We want to make the whole roof bigger because that would make certain design changes easier in the future. But we don’t want to increase the air resistance on a ride that relies on speed. That means finding a light mesh that will cut through the air with less resistance.

So I hooked my laptop to sensors that measure air pressure 1,000 times per second, and brought it over to Zumanjaro with some mesh samples. I needed my laptop to stay open while it rode up and down, so I figured I’d just strap in and hold it myself.

We found a material that lowers the roof’s wind resistance by 30 percent, and weighs half of what we use now. Luckily it took me only 25 runs—and I got an amazing view.

As told to Mary Beth Griggs

Shaping the nation’s biggest ships


Peter Oumanski

“The biggest challenge is seeing how the millions of pieces fit together—that’s my job.”

Kari Wilkinson, VP of Program Management at Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, MS

This is an 800-acre shipyard. When I first came here after college, I saw the massive equipment and huge ships, and realized how little I actually knew about naval engineering. Ingalls has built nearly 70 percent of the U.S. Navy fleet. We have 11 military vessels under construction, and nearly 12,000 employees. The biggest challenge is seeing how the millions of pieces fit together—that’s my job. To build one of these boats, which can reach more than 800 feet long, we create units. These are the building blocks, like Legos, that we connect and stack together to make bigger sections of the craft. Some units are four decks high, and some are a single level. We lay down the lowest units along the keel in a cradle while we’re putting together sections of piping and electrical components for the water, cooling, and propulsion systems.

Later, we launch the ship but continue to finish it in the water. You start seeing the paint and the deck covering and the furniture. At the very end, we’re testing everything, from the toilets to the water that cools the engines. It takes three to six years to build one of these ships, and by then, it’s almost like it’s part of your family. I’ve never been on a cruise liner, but I’ve been on sea trials plenty, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. When you feel the engines start and it takes off under its own power, there is no better place to be.

As told to Sophie Bushwick

I got my hand stuck in a cow—for science

fistulated cow

Peter Oumanski

“The cow isn’t really bothered by this process at all. It’s remarkable. Sometimes the patient keeps eating during the surgery.”

Matthias Hess, assistant professor at the University of California at Davis

I’m fascinated by cow guts. The microbes in the rumen—the largest of four sections in a cow’s stomach—break down plant materials extremely well. Studying that process can help us design better cow feed, which could minimize the greenhouse gases cattle emit. It could even help us find ways to optimize our own guts.

To study these questions in the lab, I designed an artificial cow-gut system. It looks a lot like a beer fermenter. But for the system to work, I need live rumen samples, and for that I have to literally reach into a cow’s stomach. You do this using a fistulated cow. That’s one where a veterinarian cuts a hole in its side, and inserts a tube between the rumen and the skin that can be sealed with a plastic stopper. The cow isn’t really bothered by this process at all. It’s remarkable. Sometimes the patient keeps eating during the surgery.

Once a cow is fistulated, you can stick your hand in and pull stuff out of the rumen whenever you need to. Liquids are easy to get: You place a tube in the opening and suck it out. Solids can get tricky, though. It starts out simple enough—you just put your hand deep into the opening. But it’s pretty packed in there. And the gut muscles are constantly moving. You can get your arm stuck. That sounds bad, I know. But you just have to stay calm and wait for the muscles to relax. Or you do what I do, and let your students handle the dirty work while you watch them get stuck. Don’t worry, they think it’s pretty funny.

That’s why my favorite cow is the artificial one in my lab. I can switch it on and off, and I can control all the variables, so every result is ­predictable. And your hand doesn’t get stuck in a gut.

As told to Claire Maldarelli

Pushing the limits of a giant plane


Peter Oumanski

“If there’s damage, your boss will want to know what happened.”

Mark Feuerstein, Boeing test pilot

As a youngster, I liked airplanes, and I knew I wanted to be a test pilot. Today, I fly Boeing’s 747s, including the 747-8, the world’s longest passenger jet. We push planes to their limits, sometimes doing hazardous maneuvers so engineers can enhance the safety of the airliner. For instance, we’ll purposely stall an engine and let the craft pitch nose-down to make sure it behaves well without pilot intervention. Jets today generally recover quickly.

One of the most fun things we’ve done is a million-pound takeoff. One million is a big round number! We were testing how the 747-8 flies at its maximum certified takeoff weight of 990,000 pounds. Normally, as you burn fuel, that weight drops before you can get in the air. The extra 10,000 pounds of gas got us off the ground so we could see how the plane handles airborne at 990,000 pounds. When it’s that heavy, it’s harder for the structure to absorb a firm landing, so you have to be a little careful. If there’s damage, your boss will want to know what happened.

As told to Kelsey Atherton

What it’s like to drink you own pee

astronauts drinking

Illustrations by Mark Nerys

“Youʼre drinking recycled sweat and urine.”

Jeff Williams, NASA astronaut and U.S. record holder for total days spent in space

“On Earth, not all water tastes the same. Some water is delicious, but some can leave a funny taste in your mouth—the result of a particular mineral or metal. This doesnʼt happen on board the International Space Station, even though youʼre drinking recycled sweat and urine. You donʼt sense any unusual flavors. The water—and the beverages we make from it—consistently tastes pretty good.

The process of treating wastewater up there isnʼt all that different from the natural water cycle on Earth—the runoff, the evaporation, clouds, and rain. The planetʼs water cycle turns water we might consider nasty into water we consider drinkable; so do the ISSʼs systems. And we test it almost every single day, so weʼre confident that our drinking water is clean. NASA has very strict standards for it. We joke about it a lot, but we really donʼt think much about what our drinking water used to be. Iʼve been on board with 55 or so different people, and Iʼve never seen anyone hesitate to drink it. We drink the Russian water, and they drink ours.”

As told to Sarah Fecht

Battling a waterborne plague

giant bacteria

Illustrations by Mark Nerys

“We had to work quickly to get clean water to small communities fighting against the disease.”

Rick Gelting, U.S. Public Health Service Officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

“When you’re in a water emergency, it’s really not the time to try something new. In 2010, when the cholera outbreak hit Haiti, the local government invited us to help implement a water-cleaning system. We had to work quickly to get clean water to small communities fighting against the waterborne disease. But we also couldn’t introduce any new technologies or products that local workers and residents might not be familiar with.

Chlorine was our go-to: It’s available, inexpensive, and incredibly effective. Problem is, there are different types of chlorination, so we had to trace where people got every drop of their water—whether they piped it in, hauled it from wells, or got it elsewhere. This is where local knowledge comes in handy.

For large community water systems, we used locally available materials to drip a liquid chlorine solution directly into storage tanks, a method that Haiti’s national water and ­sanitation agency (DINEPA) developed. But some people were bringing in small batches of water from other places. In those cases, special chlorine tablets and solutions let ­individual households treat their own water.

Working with DINEPA was key because they knew the local conditions and communities better than we did. Local knowledge ­ensures that what you build will sustain itself and make a difference in the long term—­because you will eventually leave.”

As told to Claire Maldarelli

Flying straight into a tempest

Flying straight into a tempest

Illustrations by Mark Nerys

“We wound up hitting such a strong updraft, maybe 60 miles per hour, that we hit zero g for a couple of seconds.”

Robert Rogers, meteorologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Organization

“When we fly Hurricane Hunter aircraft into cyclones, a lot of the data we gather is to monitor for “rapid intensification.” That’s when a storm increases in strength by 35 miles per hour or more within a 24-hour period, and it’s a big concern for the forecast community. The nightmare scenario is for this to happen to a Category 1 hurricane just before landfall on the U.S. coast: It goes from a Category 1 to a catastrophic Category 4, and no one has any warning.

Back in 2007, during Hurricane Felix, we flew into a Category 2. But at 10,000 feet, I saw flashes—at first I thought someone took a photo, but then I realized it was lightning. When you see lightning in the core of a storm, it’s a sign that it’s really intensifying. We wound up hitting such a strong updraft, maybe 60 miles per hour, that we hit zero g for a couple of seconds. My notebook started to float, and drops of water from the cup next to me were hovering in the air. At that point, the mission switched from collecting data to just getting home safely.”

As told to Rachel Feltman

That time I bombed Antarctica

blast in antarctica

Illustrations by Mark Nerys

“Explosives happen to be a great source of sound.”

Nick Holschuh, Geophysicist at the University of Washington

“If you were to melt Antarctica, the global sea level would go up by around 60 meters, which would obviously be pretty bad. But to understand how and when the ice sheet might melt, we need to measure its physical properties—the material of the rocks beneath, the temperature of the ice, defects gliding through the system. For something one and a half times the size of the United States, thatʼs a crazy-difficult task.

So how do we do that? Well, if you use a thermometer to measure temperature, youʼre actually measuring the behavior of alcohol or metal within the thermometer itself. I used a similar principle to measure temperature through the ice. We sent sound waves down into the subsurface to get information on physical properties—like temperature—that affected them on the way.

Explosives happen to be a great source of sound. First, we bored a 20-meter hole down into the ice with a hot-water drill. Then we stuffed in a pound of Pentex H boosters and packed them in with snow. We covered the surface in an array of microphones. Then—boom!

After the explosion, we listened for echoes. Logistically speaking, itʼs not the simplest method of measuring the properties of ice, but having a variety of data-collection techniques at our disposal helps us understand how human behavior affects this massive system.

On quieter days, I use radio waves to peek through the ice sheets—to look at the configuration of the ice and the properties of the material itʼs sitting on top of—and I use satellite data to see how the surface is changing over time.”

As told to Sophie Bushwick

Slip and slide

female storm chaser

Illustrations by Mark Nerys

“It’s like driving on black ice in the middle of nowhere with no cell reception.”

Emily Sutton, meteorologist and storm chaser at KFOR-TV in Oklahoma City

“When you’re chasing a storm, hydro-planing and hail are usually scarier than the tornado itself. It’s like driving on black ice in the middle of nowhere with no cell reception.”

As told to Rachel Feltman

The mysterious case of the cat-scented faucet

The mysterious case of the cat-scented faucet

Illustrations by Mark Nerys

“We sprayed chlorine dioxide into the air, and sure enough: cat urine.”

Andrea Dietrich, water consultant for utility companies

“About 25 years ago, some people would turn on their ­faucets and smell cat urine. It was one apartment in a building, or one house in a neighborhood. Residents would say, ‘We don’t have a cat.’ We were stumped for more than a year until a utility employee said, ‘It’s not our water; it’s residents’ new carpets.’

He was half right, anyway. At the time, maybe 0.1 percent of utilities in the United States disinfected their water with chlorine dioxide. But chlorine dioxide isn’t water soluble, so when people opened their faucets, it would quickly fill the surrounding air. There, it reacted with chemicals in new carpets to create the signature stench. My colleague and I went to his church, which had a new carpet, to test the theory. We sprayed chlorine dioxide into the air, and sure enough: cat urine.”

As told to Sarah Chodosh

These articles were originally published in the March/April 2017 and May/June 2017 issues of Popular Science, in the “Tales From The Field” section. Read more of them here.

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