Baylor Physicist Sees Space Program Rebounding One Year After Breakup Of Columbia

  • News Photo 1772
    Hyde in CASPER's Hypervelocity Impacts and Dusty Plasma Lab on the TSTC campus.
  • News Photo 1773
    Dr. Truell Hyde, vice provost for research and director of CASPER
Jan. 29, 2004

by Judy Long

The space shuttle will be returned to service, according to Dr. Truell Hyde, Baylor University's vice provost for research and director of the Center for Astrophysics, Space Physics and Engineering Research (CASPER), despite the Columbia accident one year ago.

The shuttle broke up as it re-entered the earth's atmosphere over Texas on Feb. 1, 2003. The disaster compelled NASA to re-evaluate the space program, which it needed to do anyway, Hyde said.

"The shuttle is an aging system in need of a complete overhaul, but now it has support at the top. We had become complacent, as if space travel had become as safe as air travel, but it hasn't--it's dangerous."

Hyde added that shuttle travel will remain risky, but the risks can be minimized. The space program also is on solid footing under the current administration, he said. "Besides, we can't stop developing space technology now that China has a man in space and India is talking about sending a man to the moon. It wouldn't be wise if we want to maintain our technological lead."

One indication that manned space flight is still in the plans is that the astronaut training program is in full swing. "At professional conferences, I've heard the shuttle will be recertified and fly until around 2010. Unfortunately, we may have a gap of three to five years after that when we won't get off the planet," he said.

Hyde said space technology professionals are discussing manned flights to Mars, a possibility raised in January by President George W. Bush. "To go to Mars, we'll have to build the vehicle from the ground up, but we would have done that anyway. Our current technology would take us to Mars in six months, so the round trip would be a year. But our technology will improve," he said.

Hyde said the space program provides an essential venue for research that cannot be done on Earth.

"When you're in orbit, the microgravity environment allows you to do all kinds of research like drug discovery and semiconductors that you can't do here because of the influence of gravity," he said. "You can argue that much of our current economy stems from NASA. From the Apollo era came pacemakers, semiconductor chips and microwaves, things that we take for granted. You can even argue that Silicon Valley came out of the space program. It's been good for everybody."

Space adventure also satisfies the "explorer that's inside all of us," he added.

Despite the tragic loss of the Columbia last year, Hyde said he will continue to pursue his dream of flying on a future shuttle mission. He applied for the last four shuttle flights, including the Columbia mission, and made it each time to the final 100 applicants.

Hyde said even if he never actually flies on the shuttle, he hopes his dusty plasma experiment, which he conducts at CASPER, will be flown into space.

CASPER, located on the TSTC campus and operated jointly between Baylor and TSTC, consists of a theory group and two experimental labs: the Astrophysics and Space Science Theory Group (ASSTG), the Hypervelocity Impacts and Dusty Plasmas Lab (HIDPL) and the Space Science Lab (SSL).

Hyde can be reached for interviews from 3:30 until 4:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 30, at 710-3763 or by e-mail at Truell_Hyde@baylor.edu.

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