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U-M professor feels loss of Columbia

By the time Prof. Gerard Faeth heard on the radio that NASA had lost contact with the space shuttle Columbia Feb. 1, the astronauts already had sent back most of the results from the experiment he had on board.
Prof. Gerard Faeth stands by a replica of a space shuttle. He worked with the Columbia astronauts and had received some results from his on-board experiment before the shuttle disintegrated in mid-air. (Photo by Marcia Ledford, U-M Photo Services)

The seven astronauts all had worked on the experiment, which was designed to find ways to control soot and carbon monoxide in power plants, aircraft and industrial processes.

Some of the information wasn't sent back to Faeth and other researchers because of a downlink problem. The plan was for those results to be available once the shuttle landed. Along with the tragic loss of seven people when the shuttle disintegrated in the morning sky, much of the scientific information on board also vanished.

"We did lose one-third to one-half of our data," says Faeth, a professor of aerospace engineering. "But I still have to classify our particular experiment as being successful."

The experiment consisted of observing a flame that did not flicker and that was not disturbed by gravity. What he and his students learned from this experiment, both from the Columbia trip and a previous journey in space, could lead to ways of controlling soot, the deadliest of all pollutants, Faeth says. The latest experiment taught him some simple ways to predict soot in flames, he says.

Four of those on board the Columbia had extensive training on Faeth's project: Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown and Ilan Ramon, who did the bulk of the testing. Faeth's last contact with the crew was the Wednesday after liftoff, when he spoke to Anderson through a NASA coordinator.

"They became our hands up there. They all performed tremendously well. They did everything they could to make the experiment a success," he says. "But no matter how good that data was, it would never be able to make up for the loss of those seven lives."

The past, and the future

Faeth's experiment joined a long list of U-M projects aboard shuttles and rockets. Several others currently are in space, says Thomas Zurbuchen, senior associate research scientist at the Space Physics Research Lab. Three instruments that look at solar wind composition are on the Ulysses spacecraft, the Advanced Composition Explorer and the Wind mission, he says.

Zurbuchen and others at the research lab have worked on an instrument for an upcoming unmanned flight, which will explore the environment of Mercury. The instrument is scheduled to go on a MESSENGER mission in March or May of 2004.

Some of the other U-M projects that have been on shuttles and other spacecraft are: an experiment on the shuttle Endeavour in 1993 designed to help scientists learn more about what happens when liquids boil; a 1994 effort in which U-M scientists helped count trees in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan using space-age technology they developed, which was on Endeavour; a 1996 experiment involving Prof. Brian Gilchrist in which astronauts tested the Tethered Satellite System; and the VORTEX experiment, which measured fluid atomization, was sent into space on Endeavour in 1998. (U-M has numerous other NASA-related projects; for a complete list of the 118 projects, contact Kathryn DeWitt at Sponsored Programs, (734) 763-6438 or

In the wake of the Columbia tragedy, many have suggested that NASA move away from manned flights. If that happens, Zurbuchen says, research like his still could continue because it depends on robotic devices. But other research would suffer, he says.

"The one impact that will be unbelievably severe will be life sciences in space," he says. "Should we stop the manned space program—it would probably destroy that entire community. Pulling the plug on it totally would be the wrong signal to send."

Tony England, a professor of electrical engineering and in the Atmospheric, Oceanic, and Space Sciences, flew on the Challenger in 1985 and continues to be a proponent of human space flight.

"We do research on where life came from," he says. "To me, just as basic is where we're going."

But he says the space program needs to focus on vehicles other than the shuttle for the exploration of space, as was recommended in a report after the 1986 explosion of the Challenger. Indeed, he thinks those recommendations should have been implemented already.

"I feel very strongly that that should have been done," he says. "The shuttle is a fragile vehicle."

Zurbuchen agrees that the space program should make technological advances. "That is the discussion we should have: Can we do it better?"

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