Baylor Physicist Reflects On Shuttle Disaster, Own Space Aspirations

Feb. 3, 2003
News Photo 1078The American Flag in front of Pat Neff Hall was lowered to half-staff Feb. 1, in remembrance of the seven astronauts who lost their lives aboard the space shuttle "Columbia."
Jason Raddin / Baylor Photography

by Judy Long

Flags across the Baylor University campus are at half-staff this week to memorialize the crew of the space shuttle Columbia, which broke apart Feb. 1 over north and east Texas as it re-entered Earth's atmosphere.

The Columbia disaster occurred only four days after the 17th anniversary of another of the space program's tragedies - the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986.

As the investigation continues into what caused Columbia's re-entry failure, Baylor physicist and Vice Provost for Research Truell Hyde said the technology to prevent problems with heat-resistant tiles, which is one of several possible causes that investigators are looking at, is not on the table yet.

"It's unfortunate, but they probably need to go back to ground zero and look for new technology to protect manned space craft," he said.

Despite another tragic loss for NASA and America's space shuttle program, Hyde said he will continue to pursue his dream of flying on a future shuttle mission. The director of Baylor's Center for Astrophysics, Space Physics and Engineering Research (CASPER) has applied for the last four shuttle flights, including the Columbia mission, and has made it each time to the final 100 applicants.

He believes that the space program will go on to satisfy the "explorer that's inside all of us" and to do the kinds of research that cannot be done on Earth.

"When you're on 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."

Hyde said even if he never actually flies on the shuttle, he hopes his experiments on dusty plasma will be flown into outer space.

"I had a Japanese friend who was going to let me put the dusty plasma experiment in available room the Japanese had at the international space station, but it didn't work out at the time," he said.

Hyde might have to wait several years before getting his experiments aboard a shuttle mission. The Challenger explosion in 1986 put the shuttle program on hold for 30 months.

Hyde's main research on dusty plasma is conducted through CASPER, which 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 and CASPER scientists are working on a hypervelocity impact resistance system by studying the effects of microscopic space particles that collide with orbiting satellites at high rates of speed. Their research could then lead to the creation of protective shields for such satellites, keeping them operational for longer periods of time.

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