Firefighting Researchers Mourn Columbia Team

February 4, 2003

When the space shuttle Columbia broke up on Saturday, February 1, a group of Colorado-based researchers whose firefighting experiment was on board felt the tragedy all the more deeply because they had worked closely with the astronauts during the previous few days to fix a glitch in the experiment.

On Friday evening, January 31, thermal engineer David Petrick, involved in the experiment since his undergraduate days at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, returned home to Boulder, Colorado, from the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

"When the experiment was completed, we were ecstatic," Petrick says.

The next day, just after 8 a.m., Mountain time, Houston called.

"I cried, and now I'm just shocked, I can't get over it," says Ned Riedel, a researcher at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder who also was in Houston to help supervise the experiment.

"Those astronauts were our best friends that week," says Petrick, who works at Technology Applications, Inc. in Boulder.

"KC [Indian-born astronaut Kalpana Chawla] was closest to our group and it was primarily her work that saved our project."

Chawla had long known Angel Abbud-Madrid, co-director of the experiment and a scientist at the Center for Commercial Applications of Combustion in Space, or CCACS, at the Colorado School of Mines.

For five years CCACS professor Tom McKinnon, Abbud-Madrid, and Riedel had developed an experiment to test "water mist fire suppression"—a new firefighting technique.

Fire extinguishers based on mists would be a lighter option for aircraft, spacecraft, ships and libraries—any enclosed space.

Firefighting in Zero-Gravity

Continued on Next Page >>


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