Columbia Returns to Earth Its Crew Broke New Ground in Space Exploration, and Set Record for Shuttle Flights

Article excerpt

THE space shuttle Columbia swept through a clear Florida sky yesterday morning and landed at Kennedy Space Center, bringing NASA's longest shuttle flight to an end.

The shuttle was scheduled to land in California but was diverted because of bad weather. The seven astronauts aboard have opened a new phase in American space exploration - the systematic study of physical, chemical, and biological processes under weightless conditions.

Scientists who watched with fascination as the crew in space carried out their experiments now have to complete the mission. "We'll do the hard work - learning what our observations have to teach us," Vanderbilt University physicist Taylor Wang said as he puzzled over the gravity-free behavior of liquid drops.

There have been many microgravity experiments in the past. But the on-orbit research concluded this week inaugurated what the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) calls its Microgravity Laboratory. This is a special configuration of the European-built Spacelab carried in the orbiter's payload bay.

NASA considers this laboratory and the microgravity research it represents a key part of what it calls "a science-and-technology program that will open NASA's next great era of exploration." The aim is to uncover fundamental properties of materials, natural processes, and various phenomena that are masked by gravitational influences on Earth.

Orbiting spacecraft remove these gravitational influences because they are falling freely around Earth. They do "feel" minute gravity-like accelerations from thruster firings and movements of astronauts. Hence they provide what scientists call a "microgravity" environment.

Six years ago, Bonnie Dunbar - payload commander on Columbia's mission - chaired a NASA task force that developed a long-term microgravity research program using the shuttle and, ultimately, the space station. Space is a new world for experimental scientists. Their early experiments under the new plan will be as much a learning experience in how to do effective research on orbit as they are investigations of nature. …