This is Vassar: The newsletter for Vassar College Alumnae/i and Families

Max Fagin '10 goes weightless during NASA's Microgravity University. Photo courtesy Max Fagin.

Rocket Man

Not many people can say they’ve experienced weightlessness. Max Fagin ’10 can. In fact, he’s escaped the pull of Earth’s gravity for nearly 12 long minutes, 25 seconds at a time.

Last year, Fagin was chosen for NASA’s Microgravity University, a program that offers select students a chance to conduct scientific experiments in a space-like environment. The microgravity takes place aboard a modified Boeing 727 aircraft, often referred to as the Vomit Comet. The plane flies parabolas, swooping up and down like a roller coaster. Near the apex of each peak in the parabolic flight, the cabin experiences microgravity and people become weightless for about 25 seconds.

Fagin logged 28 parabolas across two flights. What was weightlessness like? Not as unnatural as one might imagine, at least for Fagin. “As soon as I became weightless, it felt like gravity was the wrong way for things to be,” he says. “Floating around without it was the way life was supposed to be.” That was until a bout of nausea set in, as it does for most first-time microgravity flyers. “I wish I’d taken more of the anti-nausea medicine,” Fagin jokes.

He was doing research studying a novel dehumidification system for spacecraft cabins. It was one of the latest in a string of developments for a guy who’s long had his head in the clouds. “I’ve always been interested in space,” he says. “I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t.”

Max Fagin Dartmouth Video


Fagin came to Vassar to take advantage of the Vassar-Dartmouth Dual Degree Program in Engineering. The five-year program has students spend three of those years at Vassar, usually as physics, chemistry, or mathematics majors. Junior year is spent at Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering. Participants then return to Vassar for their senior year. Then it’s off to Dartmouth again for a final fifth year. Fagin ultimately graduated from Vassar in May 2010 with dual degrees in physics and astronomy, and in November 2011 from Dartmouth with a degree in engineering.

Microgravity University wasn’t Fagin’s first time with NASA. The summer after graduating from Vassar, Fagin was selected to the NASA Ames Academy for Space Exploration in California. The 10-week program offers a fully immersive NASA experience. One of the highlights? When Buzz Aldrin walked into Fagin’s office to chat.

Fagin plans to attend graduate school to study aerospace engineering, but for now, he’s working as a researcher at Dartmouth in the Lynch Rocket Lab. There he’s designing balloon-born and rocket-born payloads (“scientific packages,” Fagin says) to study the Earth’s upper atmosphere and the aurora borealis. He is also contracted through the Lynch lab to do dark energy research with a Harvard astronomy professor, helping to measure distant supernova. It’s an area of research that joins Fagin to the lineage of Vera Cooper Rubin ’48, whose own astronomical research has been credited with proving the existence of dark matter.

Fagin hopes it will all lead to a genuine foray into space, the final frontier. “Every boy goes through a phase in his life where he wants to be an astronaut. I guess I just never really grew out of it,” he says. He knows it might be a long shot, but has his sights set on the stars—or, more accurately, the planets—nonetheless. “I intend to die of natural causes,” he says, “on Mars.”

– Peter Bronski

January 2012

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