- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 12, 2003

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Jan. 12 (UPI) — NASA plans to start off the new year with a blast from its scientific past, as shuttle Columbia and a seven-member crew are scheduled to lift off Thursday for a 16-day, dual-shift, science research mission.

"This flight harkens back to the old days of the Spacelab missions that we so successfully flew aboard the space shuttle back in the '80s and '90s," said Columbia's payload commander Michael Anderson. "Research flights have sort of taken a back seat."

Columbia's upcoming mission is the final one dedicated to research that NASA plans to fly on the space shuttle. Aside from an occasional servicing call to the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA's shuttle fleet is being used exclusively to ferry equipment, crews and supplies to the International Space Station.

"With the (shuttle's) reduced flight rate down to four or five a year, we're going to see almost all of them dedicated to the space station," said John Charles, who oversees the biological and physical sciences experiments on Columbia's mission.

Delayed for repairs, then bypassed while NASA flew more time sensitive station assembly missions at the close of 2002, shuttle Columbia finally is in position on its Florida seaside launch pad to blast off. Working in split, dual-shifts, the seven-member crew, which includes the first Israeli astronaut, plans to conduct more than 100 experiments that touch on just about every aspect of science, including biological and medical research, fluid physics, atmospheric studies, combustion research and other disciplines.

One of the primary experiments, sponsored by the Israel Space Agency in partnership with NASA, will track tiny dust particles that make their way from the Sahara Desert toward the Middle East and elsewhere — affecting temperatures, rainfall and other environmental factors along the way. Measurements will be taken using a special visible light and infrared camera mounted in the shuttle's cargo bay. Additional data is expected to be collected from sensors flying on balloons and aboard aircraft during the shuttle mission. The shuttle's camera also is expected to be used for studies of a phenomena in thunderstorms, called sprites, which are vertical lines coming out from the storms.

Also aboard the shuttle is a piece of pioneering ozone-monitoring experiment that is flying for the second time. The device is serving as an orbital testbed for instruments being built for the Ozone Mapping and Profiler Suite program, a new U.S. program to monitor ozone from space.

"Because there is debate about which chemicals are causing ozone depletion and which chemicals need to continue to be banned, we hope that (shuttle ozone experiment) will help clarify that debate," said Gerard Daelemans, chief of the shuttle small payloads project office at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Inside the shuttle, the crew's attention will be focused on dozens of medical and biological experiments. For some, the astronauts will serve as orbital test subjects. Other research will be conducted post-flight on plants, fish, spiders, silkworms and rodents that also will be aboard the shuttle.

"The payloads are not studying space per se," said Charles. "Instead, they're using access to spaceflight as a tool to understand physical and biological processes and phenomena. There also are advanced technology payloads aimed at improving the safety and efficiency of spaceflight so we can do better research in the future."

(Editors: UPI Photo #WAX2003010201 is available)


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