Laboratory of Space Medicine and Space Pharmacology

Space Biology and Life Sciences, Professor Dr. med. Daniela Gabriele Grimm

Blog of our Parabolic Flight in September 2016

What an experiment requires to be successful.
by Sascha Kopp/Jessica Pietsch

16.09.16 - The final countdown

Today, was the last flight day. We have so much routine now with the preparation that all went smoothly without any hiccups and we saw our last sunup at the airport (Fig. 22.) The plane started shortly after 9 am and flew today again to the Atlantic Ocean (Fig. 23). Since this is nearer than Corsica they were already back shortly after 12 am.

Figure 22: Sunup at the airport - granted a very early sunup ;).

Figure 23: Tracked flight of flight day 4 of ZERO-G with

During the flight, our team started to pack our equipment for the trip back to Germany tomorrow. The first item loaded was the heavy incubator (Fig. 24). Our samples we will transport with a frozen cool pack in a styrofoam box. We will leave Bordeaux tomorrow morning at 6 am and hope for a fast trip with few if not no heavy traffic or traffic jams.

Figure 24: Loading the car with our equipment for the drive home.

That was our parabolic flight campaign 2016. Thanks for following us. :)

15.09.16 - Third flight day

Finishing the preparation for the flight day, we had a bit time to look inside the cockpit of the ZERO-G aircraft (Fig. 19). It is rather small and much smaler than the cockpit in the old ZERO-G (old was an A-300, now a A-310) one which is the reason that now no one can sit inside the cockpit during the flight and witness a parabola from the "front row". ;) What a shame! Today would have been a great day since the windows were cleaned this morning (Fig. 20).

Figure 19: Cockpit of the A-310 ZERO-G.

Figure 20: Windows of the cockpit are cleaned before the flight.

The plane flew again to Corsica for the parabolas (Fig. 21) although the route today was much more compact than yesterday. They flew west of Corsica the whole time. The winds were not so problematic. For today's picture of the flight route, I did not hide the traffic around the ZERO-G. It is really full up there!

Figure 21: Tracked flight of flight day 3 of ZERO-G with

The experiment went great. All samples were fixed properly again and could be collected as planned.

14.09.16 - same procedure as last time, ... ;)

After the first flight day, the procedures and who has to do what was better understood so that we got everything ready for take off easier and in less time than yesterday.

The plane left Bordeaux around 9:15 and returned at about 13:45. As announced yesterday during the debriefing after the flight, today the plane flew to Corsica (Fig. 17) as the weather over the Atlantic Ocean was not so great today as we all could experience yesterday evening already when a heavy thunderstorm moved across Bordeaux. We could see lightning until late into the night from the windows of our hotel rooms.

Figure 17: Tracked flight of flight day 2 of ZERO-G with

During the debriefing, all teams came together and reported about how the flight was for their respective experiment. Some asked for longer breaks during some parabolas to better adjust their experiment for the resuming flight. This led to a new flight profile (Fig. 18) with prolonged times (red circles) in 1g between parabolas.

Figure 18: Flight profile of ZERO-G (credits: Novespace).

On today's second flight day, all our samples were fixed properly and are now stored fixed at 4°C.

13.09.16 - The first flight day ...

started really early. We all met at 6:15 am on the parking lot to drive to the airport. There we started the prepartion of the flight samples and the syringes with the fixatives right away. We had time until about 8:45 am to finsih with the preparation. But since the medication of the flyers already started at 8:15 am we planned to finish earlier.

One team went instantly inside the plane to turn on the incubator on the rack so that it was heated to 37°C. The cells received a further medium exchange prior to flight and were then brought inside the plane to be put into the incubator on the rack. In parallel, a third team filled the syringes with the fixatives for the fixation units. Both, the fixation units as well as the cells were installed on the rack until about 8:10 am (Fig. 13).

Figure 13: Installing the cell culture flasks (right side) and the fixative units (left side) in the incubator or on the rack.

Our flyers then went to put on the blue flight suits and getting their medication (off label use of Scopolamin against motion sickness). They than posed for a picture (Fig. 14) prior to lift of. The take off at around 9:30 am was documented on pictures by the rest of the team remaining on the ground (Fig. 15).

Figure 14: Our three flyers on flight day 1.

Figure 15: ZERO-G is taking off.

The plane flew to the Atlantic Ocean in the area west of Brittany and performed 31 parabolas flying in large circles there. During the flight, we prepared the cells for flight day 4 as well as collected the ground controls for the day. The plane returned after about 3:45 h at 1:15 pm. All samples were perfectly fixed (Fig. 16) and likewise collected similar to the ground control. All are stored now at 4°C awaiting the transport back home into our lab.

Figure 16: Fixed cells after flight.

As a small treat for ourselfes for the great flight today, we bought 'crevette' (prawns) for dinner. It was very tasty and we enjoyed it greatly.

12.09.16 - Prepartion for the flight days

Yesterday, on Sunday, we started the transfer of our cells into the smaller cell culture flasks. We prepared in total 24 T74 flasks for the first flight day on Tuesday (8 flask each for fixation after the 1st and 31st parabola as well as for the ground control). 7 flasks of each condition will be used. The one left over is intended for back up.

Today, we did the same as yesterday, although we transferred the cells for flight day 2 and 3. So our CO2 incubator is really full right now (Fig. 12).

Figure 12: The cell culture flasks for three flight days inside the incubator in the lab at Novespace.

From 2 to 4 pm we had the safety briefing which is mandatory for all flyers. We were informed about how we have to behave inside the plane during parabolas and what are the 'dos and don'ts'. Very important for our first flyers. :)

Tomorrow then some pictures of the first flight day.

09.09.16 - Final checks

Today, we gave our cells fresh nutrient solution. They are looking great and we will be able to prepare on Sunday the first batch of smaller cell culture flasks for the first flight day.

Ahead of schedule, the final experiment review of all experiments by Novespace was conducted from 9 a.m. (Fig. 10). They presented each experiment - what is the idea behind it (very simple) and when and what will be done during the flight. Yesterday, it circled more around the construction of the experiment racks and not about the science behind.

Figure 10: Final Experiment Review by employees of Novespace.

At 11 a.m. started the ground test. During the ground test, one person of each experiment is on board the airplane, the doors are closed and the engines of the plane are powered. Then every experiment is turned on to check if the electricity is working properly. On the picture below (Fig. 10) you can see the heat leaving the left engine. It made the sight of the structures behind a bit blurry (red arrow).

Figure 11: Ground test with running engines of the airplane (heat leaving the engine indicated with red arrow).

Now, all checks are done and the flight week can come.

08.09.16 - Labelling and Experiment Review

Today, we used the time in the morning to label the lever of our fixative units (Fig. 7). Each lever will be used to push the fixative from a syringe into the culture flasks. A parabolic flight offers several time points for fixation. So we have to decide when we fix. And each flyer has to know what he/she has to do when. Hence, to make it easier the labelling.

Figure 7: Labelling of the fixative lever on the flight rack.

The experiment review started around 2 p.m. in the afternoon (Fig. 8). It is an internal discussion of Novespace about the working and security of the experiments. We were supposed to be there in case there were any questions - which was not the case for us.

Figure 8: Experiment Review by employees of Novespace.

Finshing for the day, we decided to make a short trip to the Atlantic ocean. We drove to Lacanau Océan and took a walk on the beach. Afterwards, we had our dinner in one of the restaurants there looking out on a wunderful sundown (Fig. 9).

Figure 9: Lacanau Océan.

07.09.16 - Labmeeting

Today was an "easy" day at the airport for us since our rack was already in the plane. However, we observed the porgress of the remaining flight racks being brought in. Around noon, all experiments were loaded. All in all there are 11 experiments on board the ZERO-G (Fig. 5) for the 29. DLR parabolic flight campaign.

Figure 5: Location of the 11 experiments on board of ZERO-G. Our experiment is No. 6 to right. To the left is the cockpit and to the right the rear of the plane. All flyers are sitting in their seats (not marked) in the rear during landing and starting. (credits: Novespace)

Of these 11 experiments, 4 have to use the sterile facilities in the laboratory to prepare their flight samples. For this, we had a lab meeting at 2 p.m. with everyone. We discussed and agreed upon the time when is who using the laminar flow bench. Our hot time will be Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. On theses days, we will transfer the breast cancers cells we are going to investigate into smaller cell culture flasks. It was really good, that all experiment groups could attendant the meeting and the timing could be fixed.

And since the weather was so great - really sunny and very warm - we took some pictures of the ZERO-G. Here is one of them (Fig. 6). And by the way: the ZERO-G is a new airplane which is flying parabola since April 2015 and is the former airplane of the German Federal Chancellor.

Figure 6: Some impressions of ZERO-G.

06.09.16 - The first day at Novespace

The day started quiet early. We met at the car at 7 a.m. to drive to the airport to unload all our stuff. We arrived so early that the sun had not risen yet (Fig. 2).

Figure 2: Arrival at Novespace. Upon our arrival (Sascha in front of the gate), the sun started to rise. The ZERO-G airplane stands behind the building to the right side.

The unloading and installing of our equiment took about 2 hours time. The flight rack on which we perform our experiment was transported by another group and already arrived the day before. We unwrapped it (Fig. 3A) and then proceeded to go through the design and savety of the rack with our contact from Novespace. He checked the frame, the screws, the padding etc., in short the whole construction. We then could install the electronic panel. This is nothing more than extension cord with an integrated fuse and an emergency power button. The use of the electronic panels provided by Novespace is mandatory for safety reasons. After a final cleaning (Fig. 3B) and check of the weight we already were able to be loaded inside the airplane (Fig. 4). One day earlier than anticipated.

Figure 3: Unwrapping and cleaning of the flight rack .

Figure 4: Our flight rack on its way and arriving inside the ZERO-G airplane.

Anyhow, at this point it already was past 3 p.m. and we still had to tend to the cells we brought with us. During the day, we already placed them inside the large CO2 incubator when this one was heated up to 37°C and the CO2 level reached 5%. In the afternoon, we transferred the cells into larger and more numerous culture flasks (Fig. 4). By the end of this, it was almost 5 p.m. and we left the premises for the day.

Figure 4: Sascha tending the cells.

04.09.-05.09.16 - The campaign has started

On Sunday, Sascha and Jessica met in Magdeburg at the clinic. Into a large Mercedes Sprinter with two rows of seats we carried all the equipment we will need in Bordeaux. Included was a large CO2 incubator for our cells and small tranpsortable cell incubators in which we could bring the breast cancer cells for our experiments on this parabolic flight campaign tempered at 37°C to Bordeaux. Figure 1 shows the car with the open back door after everything was loaded.

Figure 1: Transporter loaded with the equipment needed in Bordeaux.

The first leg of the journey brought us to Erlangen where we picked up more people of our team. With them we drove for the day as far as "Freiburg im Breisgau" near the border to France. There we had an overnight stay after about 950 km on the road. The next morning we started around 8 a.m. for the last roughly 900 km of the trip. We arrived around 6 p.m. in Bordeaux and just got a bite to eat in the supermarket and went to bed early.


A parabolic flight experiment starts with the application for a spot at the German Space Agency (in our case) or at the European Space Agency. We applied for the parabolic flight mid 2015 and got a space for the campaign in September 2016. As soon as the campaign is complete (who and how many will participate), the company Novespace takes over the planning.

Each experiment group has an experimental rack, a metallic construcktion which encompasses all machines need for the experiment. For the construction of these racks, Novespace has strict rules which have to be met for savety reasons. The document, which summarizes all characteristics of the rack and which is passed back and forth between the scientists and Novespace, is the Experimental Safety Data Package (ESDP). To conduct the experiment during the flight, persons are needed to operate the rack. The operator have to have a Parabolic Flight Medical Certificate. If they do not have it, the experimenter will not be allowed to fly.

Right now, the ESDP is alomst finished and Sascha is organizing all the stuff we have to bring with us to Bordeaux. The journey is planned as well and we will leave Magdeburg for Bordeaux on September 4th. Shortly before or after we will keep this blog more up to date. Until then only sporadically.