Sunday, February 2, 2003

Space program must go on,
scientists say



By Tim Bonfield
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The crash of the Space Shuttle Columbia will scramble future scientific missions and will raise inevitable questions about the value of human space exploration, but many who have been involved in the space program say the mission marches on.

"They loved what they were doing and thought what they were doing was extremely important," said Bill Readdy, NASA's associate administrator for space flight. "They knew the risks. But this crew was absolutely dedicated to the mission they were performing. We can't let their sacrifice be in vain."

Unlike most recent space shuttle flights, the 16-day Columbia mission had no role in assembling the International Space Station. Instead, STS-107 was pure science.

Columbia carried more than 80 experiments, from studying a protein linked to brain, lung and breast cancer, to testing more efficient ways to burn fuel, to exploring how plants grow in microgravity.

Some of the experiments focused on how to help future space explorers - to Mars and beyond - live for extended periods away from Earth. Many more sought to use space as a laboratory for improving life on Earth.

NASA hasn't yet estimated the value of the experiments that were lost.

For many experiments, result data already had been transmitted to Earth while the shuttle was in orbit. Some experiments, however, were counting on the ability of researchers to examine samples after landing.

Some of the experiments aboard Columbia had Ohio connections.

Seven studies were designed by the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. Among them: a "flame ball" test that could help engineers design engines that burn fuel far more efficiently, thus reducing pollution.

Ohio State University professor Fred Sack was involved in an experiment tracking how moss grows in microgravity when subjected to a magnetic field. Such experiments could help researchers design ways to grow crops in space and could improve agricultural techniques on Earth.

Sack, who was at the Kennedy Space Center awaiting the return of Columbia, could not be reached for comment.

America cannot afford to abandon NASA's mission of discovery, said a Miami University professor who has sent botany experiments aboard previous shuttle flights.

John Kiss, botany professor and president-elect of the American Society for Gravitational and Space Biology, had plant experiments aboard the Atlantis shuttle in 1997 and had an experiment scheduled for the International Space Station in July 2004.

"There's something fundamental about human nature to be creative and explore," Kiss said. "People always say that there are problems here on Earth so why go into space? That has been the classic argument since 1961. But the space program has brought so many benefits both direct and indirect."

With the shuttle fleet reduced from four to three vehicles, NASA faces some tough choices about the future of its aging shuttle fleet, Kiss said.

NASA faces three basic choices - do nothing, which will slow the pace of space station construction and delay scientific experiments; replace Columbia with an old-style shuttle design at an unknown cost; or accelerate proposals to replace the shuttle fleet with a new design.

E-mail tbonfield@enquirer.com




(Complete Columbia coverage at Cincinnati.com)

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