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New life for SWT experiment aboard ‘Columbia’


News 8 Austin (05/08/2003)
By Natasha Allen

There’s new life for a biology experiment Southwest Texas State University sent aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia in January.

SWT Biology Professor Bob McLean and his three students Shanika Glenn, Sandra Beccara, and Geronimo Cortez created an experiment that studied how three different types of bacteria thrive without gravity.Two weeks after the shuttle launched, the mission ended abruptly when Columbia broke apart Feb. 2. The shuttle was carrying seven astronauts and more than 80 experiments.

“ We have a picture of one of them, Kalpana Chawla, the Indian born astronaut, and it shows our payload right behind her. It’s a very beautiful picture when you look at her facial expression, she’s smiling and really enjoying herself, but at the same time, it’s almost someone speaking from beyond,” McLean said.

McLean and two of his students attended the shuttle’s launch in Florida. Two weeks later, McLean and a student were on their way to the airport to pick up the experiment when they heard the shuttle disintegrated over Texas.

“ I was in shock, I guess, when it happened, because I was on my way to the airport,” McLean said.

Now three months later, there’s hope for the experiment. Several experiments were found in an aluminum hardware device in Nacogdoches hours after the shuttle broke up. Scientists saw their experiments for the first time since they launched this week.

“ It was pretty incredible thinking, one that something could survive that much. I had a whole bunch of mixed emotions, and certainly I’m still in shock over the people losing their lives,” McLean said.

Ironically, since the shuttle broke up, the experiments could prove to be even more important. McLean said now, scientists can learn if life can spread from one planet to another.

“ Presuming it survives in space, it’s going to have to survive passage through the atmosphere, the heat, and then the impact of when it hits the ground. And due to the tragedy of the Columbia, we’re now in the position to test that,” McLean said.

Scientist said five of nine experiments found amongst shuttle debris in February appear to provide information. The most promising experiment was one developed by NASA investigator Dennis Morrison, which manufactured capsules containing anticancer drugs that can be delivered directly to a tumor instead of to the whole body.