Firefighting Researchers Mourn Columbia Team

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Even though the new technology's applications are mostly on Earth, the research is best done in space.

On Earth a candle burns up into a point. "But in space, without gravity, nothing rises or falls and a candle flame looks more like a ball," says Frank Schowengerdt, director of CCACS.

"There are more than 150 different chemical reactions in a flame—and this is particularly hard to study on Earth with the effects of turbulence."

On board Columbia the experiment was to begin on Monday, Janurary 27, but a leak occurred. Astronauts Chawla, Ilan Ramon, Mike Anderson, and David Brown began to make repairs.

On Tuesday morning Chawla stepped in.

"She went out of her way, working through meal times and during off-duty time to help fix our experiment," says Abbud-Madrid. "She even hooked up video equipment so that we could watch what she was doing."

Chawla, collaborating with the researchers at mission control, fixed the leak, and the experiment started working. Data rolled in for another four days—securing the future of the project. More than 95 percent of the data had been transmitted to Earth before the tragedy.

Retelling the story, Abbud-Madrid struggled to control his emotions.

"She (Chawla) was a very humble person, always focused on hard work," Abbud-Madrid says. "Her country should be very proud of her."

The experiment was scheduled for a May 2000 shuttle launch but delays postponed it.

Postpones Missions Lead to Strong Friendship

Abbud-Madrid and Chawla first met in October 2000, when scientists and astronauts conferred on shuttle experiments.

"The delays meant that there were many more training and refreshing sessions, and we became good friends," Abbud-Madrid says.

"Ours was a complicated experiment and Kalpana was very interested in learning all the details, always asking many questions and working very hard."

The Colorado team devised the experiment to find alternatives to the chemical fire suppressants called halons—which damage the ozone layer.

The new system is based on water, the researchers explain. At one end of a narrow tube, in a combustion chamber built for the experiment, a hot wire ignites a mixture of propane and air that then shoots down the tube as a "hemispherical flame." From the other end of the tube a nozzle squirts out a breath of mist that meets the flame.

"The mist robs heat from the flame," says Abbud-Madrid. "This is one way it cools the flame. But when the water evaporates, it displaces the oxygen and also suffocates the flame."

For the researchers, the will to move forward has only grown stronger. They hope that a future version of this firefighting technology will bear the names of the Columbia astronauts.

"The science was a success," Petrick says. "Now it is up to us to apply the science they gave their lives for."

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