Columbia Tragedy A Setback For Science

John Roach
for National Geographic News
February 4, 2003
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.

24/7 Space Science Research

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.

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.

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.