School had one of about 80 experiments on research-only mission(02/01/2003)
By Patrick Beach
Southwest Texas State University biologists had an experiment aboard the doomed Columbia voyage.
Biology professor Bob McLean said the experiment was to study how different strains of bacteria mingle in the absence of gravity. Those bacteria were then to be compared to those in an Earth-bound control group. He said a similar experiment was aboard the shuttle voyage carrying former astronaut and U.S. Sen. John Glenn. Data from such a study may be beneficial as people spend more time in space. McLean traveled to Florida for the Jan. 16 launch and was driving from his Wimberley home to the San Antonio Airport to return to Florida to pick up his samples Saturday morning. “I was stunned,” McLean said.
“I guess being in shock would be a good way to describe it.” “The people I have had the privilege to know at NASA have been professionals in the truest sense of the word,” McLean said. “Anything they do they do to the highest possible quality. With the shuttle there’s risks, but they really try to minimize them. But as today aptly points out, it’s not totally risk-free.” But, McLean said, Saturday’s tragedy shouldn’t dampen the human impulse to explore and learn. “I’m an immigrant to the U.S from Canada,” he said. “I want to strongly emphasize one major characteristic I see as a newcomer. The American people like all nations do suffer setbacks. One key characteristic I’ve noticed in Americans as a people is they do not give up. I would strongly encourage people not to give up. This is a great national and international mission. You can argue the science of it, but a lot of it boils down to the same issues that drove people to leave Europe and discover North and South America.” Three students at Alamo Community College in San Antonio participated in the study, growing samples of the control group, SWT biology professor Dana Garcia said.
One of those students, Shanika Glenn, is now at SWT. McLean’s was one of about 80 experiments on the research-only mission. The work ranged from physics, and biology to observation of the Earth’s environment and a study of whether Australian spiders can spin webs in space. University of Texas officials said Saturday that they did not believe the university had any experiments aboard the shuttle. Experiments and research from Texas schools and universities are a regular part of shuttle missions, and Texans’ ties to the space program made the disaster hit close to home. Margaret Baguio, education and outreach coordinator for the Texas Space Grant Consortium, said she was “just heartbroken. It’s such a tragedy.
This is a tragedy in all regards, not only for science but for education as well.” The consortium partners with schools, universities and industry. Baguio has had experiments on shuttle missions and on the international space station, and she has attended launches. An experiment involving high school students’ research was scheduled for launch in May. If the shuttle program is shuttered for a time in the aftermath of the disaster, astronauts aboard the international space station will have the option of using the Soyuz spacecraft to leave in an emergency, Baguio said. “It’s more dicey to shut the program down now because of the space station,” said Byron Tapley, director of UT’s center for space research and an aerospace engineering professor. “The shuttle is an important part of continuing to operate the station.
There will have to be a careful assessment of what went wrong this time, but there’s going to be pressure to get some sort of transportation in place to operate the station. We can’t have a stand-down for several years.” Tapley said the disintegration of the shuttle underscored the risks involved in any shuttle mission, risks those who don’t closely follow the space program tend to shrug off. “We’ve done it enough that it’s taken on a routine atmosphere,” Tapley said. “But the environment they’re flying through coming back in is an enormously hostile environment. And the fleet is getting relatively aged. It’s not clear what the cause was, but the hostile environment and the age of the fleet have to come into play.”