Baylor Physicist Sees Space Exploration Still Important 20 Years After Disaster

Jan. 27, 2006

Twenty years ago Saturday, the space shuttle Challenger exploded after take-off, killing all seven astronauts on board. A little more than 17 years later, seven more astronauts lost their lives when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon re-entry into earth's atmosphere. As Americans memorialize both disasters over the next week and reflect on what has been lost, Baylor physicist Truell Hyde said it is important for Americans not to lose the drive for exploration.

"The space program really hasn't thrived since the Apollo days," Hyde said. "Freeze dried food, microwave ovens, all these technological advances that we take for granted and play a big part in our economy came out of the space program."

Hyde, who is also the director of the Center for Astrophysics, Space Physics and Engineering Research (CASPER), believes while the space program is rebounding, it is also "in need of a dream." In the 1960s, NASA promoted a dream of putting a man on the moon and that sparked children to get interested in science and technology. But since then, those large goals have faded away.

"So now we're rapidly approaching a severe problem in that we don't have enough people trained in science and technology to fill the jobs we need to maintain our position in the world," Hyde explained. "That's partly because we no longer have those large goals in front of us and the federal government understands this issue and they understand it's a desperate issue."

He said a mission to Mars is the next "big thing," but without increases in funding, that is something very hard to do.

NASA has learned from both shuttle disasters and completely changed protocol to ensure safety, but Hyde believes the notion of more unmanned spacecraft heading into space, while cheaper and safer, is not necessarily the right path to follow.

"There is stuff in orbit that we can't do with an unmanned probe. For example, we put the Hubble Space Telescope up there and it didn't work. If we didn't have a manned program, the Hubble would have been a piece of junk," Hyde said.

Safety is always at the utmost importance when talking about manned space travel, and research testing at Baylor's CASPER lab could play a big part in developing new ways to keep astronauts safe. CASPER, located on the Texas State Technical College (TSTC) campus and operated by both Baylor and TSTC, consists of the Astrophysics and Space Science Theory Group (ASSTG), the Hypervelocity Impacts and Dusty Plasmas Lab (HIDPL) and the Space Science Lab (SSL).

CASPER researchers at HIDPL recently impact-tested new space shuttle shielding provided by Zyvex, a nanotechnology firm located in Richardson that acts as the center's lead industrial partner. These prototype shields, which are smaller and lighter than the shielding currently used, were built by weaving different carbon nano-tubing together. Researchers then used a light-gas accelerator system to test the shields.

"We fired on these shields multiple times with differing size particles at different velocities to see what kind of results we'd get," Hyde said.

Preliminary results will be presented in March at a conference held at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Their research could lead to lighter and more efficient protective shielding for everything from satellites to space suits.

"Every ounce you can lose is less money you have to spend to get it into orbit," Hyde explained.

Contact: Frank Raczkiewicz, (254) 710-1964

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