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Published: 2/9/2003

Legacy of space science lives on

BY MICHAEL WOODS
BLADE SCIENCE EDITOR

WASHINGTON — Columbia's tragic mission began as a triumph for one of the most controversial parts of the manned space program:

Efforts to use the shuttle and International Space Station as platforms for scientific research exploiting the microgravity and other unique conditions found only far above the Earth.

Unmanned space science projects such as the Hubble Space Telescope, probes sent to explore other planets, and Earth-observing satellites have been tremendous boons for science.

But NASA heavily promoted shuttle, and especially International Space Station, science as the key to developing lifesaving new drugs, revolutionary new industrial processes, and gleaning important insights into cancer, aging, and other human travails.

Increasingly, those potential payoffs became a major NASA justification for increasing its own budget, proposed for $15.1 billion in fiscal 2003 and building the $94 billion International Space Station.

Many scientists, however, questioned the real value of the science planned for those manned orbiting platforms.

Columbia was the first space shuttle mission dedicated entirely to scientific research in more than four years. Discovery flew the last total-science mission in 1998. It carried former astronaut and Ohio Sen. John H. Glenn, then 76, in what NASA billed as a mission to unlock the mysteries of aging.

Planners also envisioned Columbia as one of the last science missions, with future space science projects being done almost entirely on the International Space Station.

Stowed on Columbia were four tons of scientific gear, which included more than 80 experiments. During that fateful 16-day mission, Columbia's seven crew members worked on the experiments in 12-hour shifts around the clock.

The experiments were developed by NASA; the European Space Agency, a partner in the International Space Station; university-based scientists; commercial firms, and even students as young as 12.

Although some involved fire, space shuttle program manager Ron D. Dittemore said the experiments could not have been involved in the apparent overheating suspected in the disaster.

“I can't imagine that Spacehab was involved in any way,” Mr. Dittemore said at a news briefing.

Spacehab is a pressurized research module 20 feet long, 14 feet wide and 11 feet high, which housed many of the experiments. It is stowed in the shuttle's cargo bay, some distance from the wings and landing gear where overheating apparently began.

Some experiments in that lab 180 miles above Earth seemed to almost border on the trivial.

A perfume company, for instance, had learned that roses taken into space develop a different fragrance. Its experiment aimed to make “space perfume,” bound for department store cosmetic counters.

Others were in the student science-fair genre and filled parts of Spacehab with a menagerie of spiders, carpenter bees, harvester ants, silkworms, and Japanese killfish.

Most were professional attempts to advance knowledge in medicine, biology, fluid physics, materials research, and the science of combustion. Almost 80 scientists devoted years to develop the experiments.

A day after the disaster Mr. Dittemore feared that virtually all of the results, or data, had been lost. NASA officials quickly realized that results from some experiments had been beamed back to Earth during the mission.

Late last week, NASA was still uncertain about the extent of the loss, said Dr. Mary Kicza, who heads NASA's office of biological and physical research.

NASA announced before the mission that TV broadcasts of crew would be limited to make more transmission time available to beam down scientific data.

“Fortunately, with the satellite downlink that we have from the orbiter, we were able to get tremendous data from the mission in real time,” said Bill Readdy, NASA associate administrator for space flight. “There will be, I think, still a tremendous science harvest from this mission.”

The actual amount and quality of data will vary from experiment to experiment.

Dr. Kicza said the leanest harvest generally will be for biomedical experiments that required returning blood samples, cells, experimental animals, and other material to Earth for analysis.

One major experiment, for instance, focused on preventing muscle loss in astronauts during long stays in orbit. Blood samples that each astronaut gave during the mission were stored for analysis on Earth. All the samples were lost.

Nonmedical experiments that allowed immediate downlinking of observations generally fared better.

“About 50 percent of our data was downlinked,” Dr. Paul Ronney, of the University of Southern California. “Mainly we lost the video tapes, but we did have some downlinked video during the mission.”

Dr. Ronney's Columbia project was a study of “flame balls,” mysterious spheres of flame that occur when gasses ignite in low-gravity conditions.

“We downloaded the great majority of the data during the flight,” Robert F. Berg of the National Institute of Standards and Technology said in another interview. “Its quality as well as its quantity will certainly be sufficient for our purposes. The loss was relatively small.”

Dr. Berg, who headed a shuttle experiment on xenon, a gas used in flash lamps and other devices, said that additional data stored on a computer hard drive was lost.

Critics of NASA's science agenda on International Space Station were reluctant to speak so soon after the Columbia tragedy. They cited 1997 congressional testimony as the most complete summary of the scientific community's reservations.

Dr. Robert L. Park, of the University of Maryland, presented it at a hearing of the House Committee on Science. It summarized views of the American Physical Society, the main professional organization of physicists. Many of the society's 40,000 members have done space research.

“It is the official view of the American Physical Society that scientific justification is lacking for a permanently manned space station in Earth orbit,” Dr. Park said. “Colleagues in the biological sciences assure me that the same view prevails in their field.”

The testimony tore apart NASA's claims for the likely medical and industrial benefits of such research, and termed them a “pretense.”

For instance, years of research on the former Russian Mir space station have produced “absolutely no evidence” that microgravity offers advantages for industrial or medical processing, Dr. Park said.

Most key questions about microgravity's effects on biological processes also have been answered by Mir and shuttle research, he said.

The space program has yielded thousands of technological “spinoffs,” resulting in products from battery-power tools to laptop computers.

But since the Apollo moon program, these technologies have come mainly from the unmanned space program, Dr. Park said. “Nor can we expect new technologies to come from ISS,” he added.

Dr. Kicza said NASA's commitment to science remains as strong as ever despite Columbia's loss.



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