Shuttle crash big setback for scientists

By MARK WILLIAMS, Associated Press Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Five years and at least $500,000 worth of work by an Ohio State University biology professor came down with the breakup of the space shuttle Columbia.

The project prepared in professor Fred Sack's lab was one of more than 80 aboard the shuttle, including seven experiments carried out by NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.

Although some of the Glenn research was salvaged, the crash brought an end to the Ohio State experiment.

"It's a huge loss," Sack said. "We put five years and intensive work into it."

The research was a continuation of a 1997 shuttle experiment involving moss to study how plant growth is affected by loss of gravity. The idea behind the second experiment was to see what happens to the heavy parts of cells when gravity is removed.

Sack said the goal was to understand more about how gravity shapes life.

"Much to our surprise in our first flight in 1997, they grew in spirals and clockwise," said Sack, who was at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., awaiting the shuttle's return Saturday when it disintegrated over Texas.

He said there was no way to retrieve data during the 16-day flight. The experiment included chemicals that the astronauts should not be exposed to.

Sack did receive NASA photos of shuttle commander Rick Husband working on the project and was told the experiment was going well.

"We have a personal connection to the astronauts in that sense and feel like a part of it for sure," he said.

He had received $500,000 in grant money for the project. The estimated loss does not include the time researchers and NASA employees and astronauts put into the project.

Despite the loss in the Columbia accident, Sack said, "We'd be ready to fly again."

The Glenn Research Center's experiments focused on pollution control, fuel efficiency and fire suppression. Experiments included how fire changes in microgravity and understanding the mechanism of soot formation during combustion.

"It was very discouraging for everyone involved, personally and technically," said David Urban, chief of the microgravity combustion science who was responsible for three projects.

Urban said scientists are evaluating the research that was saved. Planning for the mission began in 1998.

"At this point, it's very costly to go back and do it," he said.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)