for National Geographic News
Space shuttle Columbia was returning from a rare mission purely devoted to space science when it burned up in the morning sky high above Texas on Saturday. The catastrophe, which claimed seven lives, also dealt a devastating blow to scientists eager to conduct research in the weightlessness of space.
"There are no projects in the present cue that could compare to the Columbia mission we just had," said Kenneth Baldwin, a professor of physiology and biophysics at the University of California at Irvine.
Baldwin chairs NASA's Biological and Physical Research Advisory Committee which advises the space agency on what experiments to conduct in space to both advance human exploration of space and to take advantage of the space environment as a research laboratory.
NASA last flew a mission completely dedicated to space science in April 1998. The Nuerolab mission focused on the effects of weightlessness on the human nervous system.
Since then, the shuttle program has been busy ferrying pieces of hardware up to the International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope. While space science is often included in these missions, it is seldom the priority, explained Baldwin.
"High profile missions where you have a large contingency of science that is taking place are not an everyday occurrence," he said.
In fact, researchers had to push NASA to add the Columbia space science mission to the schedule after budget cuts to space science programs on the International Space Station delayed planned experiments there to next decade.
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STS-107 was not a normal mission. The international crew of seven aboard Columbia split up into two teams so that they could perform science experiments 24 hours a day. In all, the shuttle carried 80 experiments designed in 16 countries.
To house all these experiments, SPACEHAB, a space supplier in Webster, Texas, constructed a special module for the shuttle cargo bay outfitted like a modern scientific laboratory.
"When we flew it on Columbia it quadrupled the amount of living space," said Kimberly Campbell, a spokesperson for the company. A tunnel connected the module to the shuttle's middeck. Of the 80 experiments conducted onboard Columbia, during its last mission, 59 took place in the SPACEHAB module.
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