Columbia Tragedy A Setback For Science

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The experiments centered on the areas of astronaut health and safety, advanced technologies, and Earth and space sciences. They ranged from how to make a better smelling perfume to how to build structures resistant to earthquakes, landslides, and floods.

Students from schools in Australia, China, Israel, Japan, Lichtenstein, and the United States probed the effects of spaceflight on spiders, silkworms, inorganic crystals, fish, bees, and ants.

In cooperation with Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, the astronauts grew prostate cancer cells to learn more about how they invade bones. When grown on Earth, gravity flattens the cells, but in space they grow in three dimensions, behaving more like they do in a human body.

Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon aimed a camera out the shuttle window to track dust particles from sandstorms that blow from the Sahara over the Mediterranean Sea. The experiment was designed to study the way fine particles, called aerosols, affect rainfall on Earth.

An experiment designed by scientists at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden tested a system to douse fires with a super-fine mist that resembles fog. The experiment may lead to a more environmentally friendly way to fight fire.

"Science was at a premium," Ron Dittemore, NASA's space shuttle program manager at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, said at press briefing Saturday. "The folks on the ground were just ecstatic about the amount of science they were reaping. It was an amazing mission."

Unfortunately, Columbia never landed and most of the mission data not relayed to Earth via computers and satellite is lost.

Future Space Science

The highest space science priority going forward for NASA is the field of bioastronautics, in which scientists study how they can help the health and welfare of space-bound astronauts over prolonged periods of time.

This knowledge is essential if NASA wants to leave scientists aboard the International Space Station for an extended amount of time, colonize the moon, or send a human to Mars, Baldwin said.

The problem, Baldwin noted, is that NASA does not have sufficient facilities to conduct this high priority science due to budget constraints. The International Space Station, where much of this research is to take place, can only handle three astronauts at a time, not the six it was designed for, nor does it have the proper equipment, Baldwin said.

"If I were doing research in a lab, there needs to be three elements. There needs to be a laboratory to operate in. I need facilities—equipment to conduct experiments. And I need individuals to conduct the experiments," said Baldwin.

The International Space Station currently has just one: the research shell.

While the astronauts are capable scientists, there are too few of them to conduct a sufficient number of experiments to satisfy the research community, Baldwin said. The International Space Station also lacks key facilities to conduct meaningful research.

With the loss of Columbia, Baldwin does not see a change any time in the future. Columbia will not be replaced. As a result, delivery of people and equipment to the International Space Station will slow.

"For those like myself, I know I would probably be retired before those operations would come back, unless NASA dedicated another Columbia-like experiment into the process of bringing [the International Space Station] to full construction," he said.

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