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How WKYT’s Sam Dick ended up on NASA’s ‘Vomit Comet’

Published: Nov. 24, 2021 at 4:24 PM EST
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - In 1997, Dr. Suzanne Weaver Smith was a professor working on her dissertation and teaching some of the brightest college students in engineering at the University of Kentucky.

When her students had a chance to take a hands-on learning trip to Houston, Texas, the home of NASA, she had an idea. She made a big ask to the news director at WKYT if a reporter would want to go and cover it.

“We just expected it would be the reporter who is always out on the corner in the rain, then when he said it was going to be Sam Dick we were just thrilled,” said Dr. Weaver Smith.

If you know anything about Sam Dick, reporting and crafting a story is his passion. This story focused on three UK engineering students who were given the opportunity to fly aboard NASA’s KC 135, the ‘Weightless Wonder,’ or better known as the Vomit Comet.

Then 21-year-old Junior Kathleen Sienko was one of the students tasked with performing experiments on board that eventually they hoped would be useful on the International Space Station that was still yet to launch.

“This particular project was testing a method to use vibrations to detect damage,” said Dr. Weaver Smith.

It was a dream for Sienko, as she aspired to work in space.

“There is nothing else that has my interest as intensely as the space program does,” said Dr. Sienko.

But, having it documented on a bigger level was equally as important.

“To have someone of his stature representing our story gave us individually I think, a sense of great value beyond the excitement around what we were doing within the department, it brought the excitement to the broader university and Lexington and Kentucky as a whole,” said Dr. Sienko.

The students, along with Sam, got an up close and very personal look and feel to the project, preparing for weightlessness.

“This will be anything but an ordinary plane flight,” said Sam.

From all angles, Sam covered these students on a trip of a lifetime, and his genuine nature perhaps is what stands out the most.

“Sam immediately put everyone at ease, he became a part of the team,” said Dr. Weaver Smith.

“Sam was really respectful of the work that we were doing when we were on the flight. He was able to capture his story while still allowing us to perform the science that we had worked so hard to perform,” said Dr. Sienko.

Of course, the experience was taxing and lived up to its name, (Sam got sick) but he wasn’t alone.

At the end of the day, what both women are reminded is that the stories Sam did then, 24 years ago, had an impact on growing this program at the university and bringing attention to the possibility for future students.

“People, teachers and other people knew about what they had done because of these stories and when they visited kids and were inspiring kids to become engaged with math and science,” said Dr. Weaver Smith.

“I mean I can look back at his footage and see the impact it had on community members just in how they would approach us, if they saw us. ‘Oh, you are the weightless Wildcats’ and that was a real gift that Sam had to be able to tell those stories, and I think I learned a lot from the importance of being able to tell stories about your research in that manner, that has impacted my career as a professor at the University of Michigan,” said Dr. Sienko.

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