Statement from the Families of Space Shuttle Columbia

On January 16th, we saw our loved ones launch into a brilliant, cloud-free sky. Their hearts were full of enthusiasm, pride in country, faith in their God, and a willingness to accept risk in the pursuit of knowledge -- knowledge that might improve the quality of life for all mankind. Columbia's 16–day mission of scientific discovery was a great success, cut short by mere minutes -- yet it will live on forever in our memories. We want to thank the NASA family and people from around the world for their incredible outpouring of love and support. Although we grieve deeply, as do the families of Apollo 1 and Challenger before us, the bold exploration of space must go on. Once the root cause of this tragedy is found and corrected, the legacy of Columbia must carry on -- for the benefit of our children and yours.

A Mission for ScienceLink to audio version of this article
January 21, 2003

The STS-107 patchSpace shuttle mission STS-107, the 28th flight of the space shuttle Columbia, launched on Thursday, January 16th. This 16-day mission is dedicated entirely to science, giving more than 70 international scientists the opportunity to work with the crew aboard Columbia to perform experiments in the microgravity environment of space.

The research will use 32 different payloads aboard Columbia, in 59 separate experiments. About half are commercial, sponsored by businesses hoping to make a profit-making discovery. The rest are pure science. "We'll be doing experiments in fundamental physics, biology, firefighting, medicine, climate ... the variety is amazing," says Dr. John Charles, the STS-107 mission scientist.

Why is it important to do these studies in space instead of on the ground?

"There are many aspects of space we can't mimic on Earth," says Dr. Charles. "We can turn down air pressure in laboratory vacuum chambers and bombard samples with space-like radiation. But we can't turn off gravity or look down on Earth from above."

"Space is a truly alien environment. Many things behave differently up there and offer great opportunities for research."

Tiny round flames floating
Tiny flame balls photgraphed aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1997.

Flames are a good example. On Earth, flames have a teardrop shape caused by hot air rising in a gravitational field. Aboard a spaceship, however, flames break apart into little balls that move around like UFOs. They burn using almost no fuel -- something researchers would like to replicate in gas-saving auto engines. One of the experiments on STS-107, called SOFBALL-2, will ignite flame balls and measure their properties. Scientists hope to learn how they burn and what keeps them lit.

Human brains are another example. An astronaut just arriving in orbit has some big adjustments to make. There is no "up" or "down." If you drop something it doesn't fall. And just try catching a ball tossed by a crewmate! The brain adapts to weightlessness by building "a model" that tells the body how to react. Before long, sleeping or working upside down is no problem. No one knows how the brain builds such models, but neuroscientists want to find out because many believe model-building is a key to everyday human learning.

Even the scent of a rose can be different after being in space.

How different is space? Not even flowers smell the same. Perfume giant International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF) found that out in 1998 when they sent a miniature rose called "Overnight Scentsation" into orbit. The flower developed a "floral rose aroma" quite different from its normal odor. The new fragrance has since been incorporated into "Zen," a perfume produced by the Japanese company Shiseido. This time IFF scientists will send two flowers into orbit--a rose and an Asian rice flower. They hope the pair will produce scents even more exotic.

"Those are just three examples," says Dr. Charles. "There are many more experiments onboard Columbia--all just as exciting."

The STS-107 crew
The STS-107 crew. Seated in front are astronauts Rick Husband, commander, and Willie McCool, pilot. Standing are (from left) mission specialists Dave Brown, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Mike Anderson (payload commander) and payload specialist Ilan Ramon, representing the Israeli Space Agency.

Managing so many experiments is a big job. Columbia's crew of seven will be split into two teams, Blue and Red, which will work 12 hour shifts. This means around-the-clock research during the entire 16-day mission.

All of the investigations onboard Columbia have some specific goal such as improving auto engines or discovering new aromas. But the big prizes, says Dr. Charles, are unknown. "No one can predict where low-gravity research will take us. It's almost certain, though, that anything we do predict from our rudimentary experience so far will be only a small fraction of the ultimate benefits."











SPACEHAB Inc.?s Research Double Module (RDM) is making its first flight on STS-107. The RDM is a pressurized aluminum habitat that is carried in the space shuttle?s cargo bay to expand working space aboard the shuttle. The RDM is connected to the shuttle middeck by a pressurized access tunnel. Boeing-Huntsville performed the RDM?s systems integration for SPACEHAB and serves as the company?s mission integration contractor.

Working in a Vacuum
The year was 1643. Evangelista Torrecelli, an assistant of Galileo, poured some mercury into a glass tube and put his thumb over one end. Then he tried to pour the mercury out, but it wouldn't come. A little void had formed between his thumb and the mercury; somehow it held the heavy liquid in place. He had discovered vacuum. Nowadays, kids in restaurants routinely do the same thing using straws and water, but in Torrecelli's day the notion of a vacuum was radical. Artistole himself had declared that nature abhorred vacuums. Scientists, however, soon learned to love them. A laboratory vacuum chamber is like a piece of outer space on Earth. It's a wonderful place to do experiments that would be impossible in our planet's thick atmosphere. Vacuum research has led to light bulbs, integrated circuits, freeze-dried foods, particle accelerators, electron microscopes--even weather forecasting and human flight. Torrecelli would be amazed.


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