In the face of tragedy, innovation should spring out of creative minds.
This was the message sent by University faculty, who reacted to Saturday’s Columbia shuttle accident with sadness, optimism for the future of space travel and calls for technological development at NASA.
“I would hate when something goes wrong for the country to shrivel up and stop trying,” Electrical Engineering Prof. Tony England said.
Aerospace Engineering Prof. Gerard Faeth said he expects NASA to continue space exploration after looking into the causes of the accident. President Bush “stated pretty clearly that NASA’s main objective is opening new frontiers,” Faeth said. “Similar to the Challenger, there will be an extended safety investigation and ultimately the program will continue. That’s what NASA leadership has stated.”
Thomas Zurbuchen, a research scientist in space physics, said he hopes the accident will bring about more research into technology that could replace space shuttles. He said the Columbia shuttle was meant to be experimental but was used regularly as a “truck” to haul research experiments and astronauts into space. Zurbuchen said the question now facing NASA is, “How can we develop something to use as a truck?”
England said the shuttle’s vulnerability to human error makes it ill-equipped for space travel. “The shuttle is an extremely fragile instrument. It takes extreme care to operate. It’s probably not a suitable vehicle,” he said.
He said NASA needs to develop a new reusable space vehicle to replace the shuttle. “I would like us to continue operating (shuttles) very carefully, but start trying to find out this next generation of transportation.”
The Columbia accident represents a loss for the science community both at the University and across the country, Faeth said. “None of the remaining shuttles have a docking system like Columbia for a space lab hookup,” he said. “Replacing the Columbia is prohibitively expensive.”
The space lab is a capsule that could be docked onto the Columbia and used to carry scientific experiments into space.
As part of Faeth’s project studying pollutants created by fire, astronauts on the shuttle performed experiments on open flame. The unique properties of flame in zero-gravity situations made it ideal for his experiments. Ilan Ramon, the Israeli astronaut who died aboard the Columbia, performed more than half of his experiment.
Faeth said he got back half to two-thirds of the data for his experiment but lost the samples collected by the crew.
Faeth, who trained the Columbia astronauts to conduct his experiment, said he thought there would be a delay in scientific study in space while safety concerns about manned space travel are addressed.
“We just have to live with that delay, because it’s vitally important to return astronauts safely,” he said. “There’s nothing I could have learned that was worth the lives of seven fine people.”
Zurbuchen said he worried about scientific research in space for the next few years if manned space travel is put on hold during the investigation of the accident. He said although most scientific studies in space take place on unmanned vehicles like satellites, he was worried about experiments that require human researchers. “There are University communities and research communities that will lose opportunities. This is a real worry,” he said.
He said he did not think unmanned flights would be tapped as a replacement for manned space travel.
Zurbuchen pointed out what he called a “weird age distribution” at NASA. “There are three times more people over the age of 60 than under 30 working for NASA,” he said. “Some of the safety issues have to do with people who know how to do the jobs retiring.” He said that one of NASA’s major safety concerns should be hiring young engineers and scientists.