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Fate of shuttle research in doubt


Texas scholars hope launch delays won’t stop experiments

American-Statesman (02/04/2003)

By Sharon Jayson

Some Texas researchers are reacting with cautious concern about speculation that the space shuttle Columbia tragedy might halt or suspend the shuttle program.

Scientists with the University of Texas’ Center for Space Research, Southwest Texas State University and the Texas Space Grant Consortium, which is composed of 21 state universities, said they hope the disaster won’t stop the varied research sponsored in part by NASA grants. More than 80 experiments went down with the shuttle, which was on its first research mission in almost three years when it broke apart Saturday over Texas.

“I don’t think this will have a major impact because some of the research that can be done related to space can be done without actually going into space,” said Dr. James Guckian, interim executive vice chancellor for health affairs for the University of Texas System. “I am worried, yes, but I think there are ways to mitigate the fact that additional missions may be postponed.”

Guckian said that at least three of the system’s health-related campuses in the Houston/Galveston area have worked with NASA for more than 25 years and have sent experiments on past shuttle voyages.

Experiments on the Columbia ranged from biological to physical sciences and included an SWT experiment spearheaded by biology professor Bob McLean. The experiment involved studying how different strains of bacteria mingle without gravity and could have helped find ways for people to stay longer in space.

Researchers are concerned that even a temporary shutdown could stall experiments that range beyond understanding space.

“Fire suits today are made of materials developed out of the space program,” said Margaret Baguio, education and outreach coordinator for the consortium. “So many technologies have been developed as a result of the space program.”

Baguio learned Monday that although the May 23 shuttle launch will be delayed, the protein crystal growth experiment that was scheduled for that launch will go on. The experiment, which involves mixing proteins provided by NASA with salt solutions created by Texas high school students and middle school teachers, will be frozen until the next launch.

That experiment, though significant for the consortium’s outreach, is not hard-core research, said Wallace Fowler, the consortium’s director. He is more concerned that a delay in the shuttle program would harm the international space station, which relies on power from the shuttle to stay in orbit.

At SWT, chemistry professor Patrick Cassidy has been conducting research for NASA for about 15 years. He has two patents on a high-performance, transparent plastic fil m that he said is a direct result of space shuttle research. A short pause in the shuttle program won’t affect him, but he fears a shutdown.

“We wouldn’t be doing this work if it weren’t for the requirements of the shuttle and the ability to test it under those conditions,” he said.

That’s not the case at UT’s Center for Space Research, where Director Byron Tapley said the focus is on unmanned research.

“We’re not utilizing, at the present time, the shuttle or the space station for very many of the experiments,” he said.