Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Early Return Forces Astronauts to Cram

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Early Return Forces Astronauts to Cram

Article excerpt

Forced to fly on two-thirds power, space shuttle Columbia's astronauts squeezed in as many experiments as possible Monday, working by flashlight before closing their lab for an early return to Earth.

NASA ordered the shuttle back to Earth after one of three crucial electricity-generating fuel cells failed Sunday, less than two days into what was to have been a 16-day science mission. The $2 billion reusable spaceship was scheduled to land in Florida today.

"For sure, you can't cram 16 days of work into four days, but we're doing our best," said astronaut-physicist Donald Thomas. The seven astronauts might have been able to fly the entire 16-day science mission if the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had halted the countdown Friday and replaced a faulty electric generator that had been giving unusual voltage readings hours before liftoff. That generator slowly lost voltage in orbit - a situation that can cause an explosion - and forced NASA to cut short the $500 million-plus mission. The mission was to have included studies of the behavior of fire in space, medical research and the development of near-perfect alloys. Only a fraction of the planned scientific experiments were to be performed before the laboratory was shut late Monday for the shuttle's return. Joel Kearns, head of NASA's microgravity office, said he had requested a new shuttle flight for the mission. "I have no doubt that, because of the great success shown in our limited opportunity to acquire research data in the past few days, in the future we will bring these investigations to a conclusion," he said. If a shuttle is available, it is technically possible to rerun the mission before the end of the year, Kearns said. The electric generators, called fuel cells, are so critical, supplying power for virtually all systems, that each shuttle has three. …

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