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Space is still a frontier

In the wake of the recent space shuttle tragedy, Dr Martin Barstow, from the University's Department of Physics and Astronomy, considers that the space programme must go on

[Leicester Mercury feature, February 2003]

With our 40-year involvement in satellite missions and the opening of the National Space Centre, space travel is close to the hearts of many of us in Leicester and Leicestershire. Indeed, we have adopted NASA astronaut Jeff Hoffman as one of our own, through his close connection with this area. Just three weeks ago, the crew of a previous shuttle mission, flown in October 2002, visited the Space Centre. All those fortunate enough to hear them were transfixed by their passion, courage and humanity. Astronauts are amazing people. On Saturday seven others lost their lives. I am sure that the thoughts and sympathies of all of us are with the families, friends and colleagues of the astronauts and I hope that you will join me in extending to them the condolences of the City and County through this column.

It is 17 years, almost to the day, since the shuttle Challenger exploded soon after launch. Columbia’s crew certainly knew what dangers they faced but their loss once more highlights for the rest of us the risks associated with space travel. It is easy to forget that space is still a frontier where technology is often pushed to its limits. This does not mean that safety is unimportant; in fact it is always the top priority when astronauts are involved. One immediate action is that the whole remaining shuttle fleet will be grounded until the cause of the accident is known.

It is much too early to know what caused Columbia to disintegrate, although some possibilities have already been discussed. Damage caused by insulation dislodged at launch is one possibility; problems with control systems another. However, Columbia was the first, and most heavily used, of all the space shuttles, having flown almost thirty times previously. Nobody knows what the useful working life of one of these vehicles might be. Both launch and re-entry impose tremendous stresses and strains on the structure and it may be that Columbia had, catastrophically, reached the end of its life. The NASA teams searching for the cause have a tremendous task ahead of them, analysing data transmitted from the shuttle immediately before disintegration and collecting and studying all the debris that can be found. It may be many months before any definitive conclusions can be drawn.

It is human nature to explore. The loss of Columbia is a tragic setback but I am sure that the space programme will recover and move forward with renewed determination as it did following the Challenger disaster. It should. Space research is a tremendous example of what can be done through international collaboration, showing how people really can work together towards a common goal. In the current tense political climate, we seem to concentrate more on our differences and less on what we have in common as human beings. We are just a small part of a larger cosmos. The challenges of human space flight and exploration of the solar system will require the cooperative efforts of the whole world and could help us realise what we share. That would be a fitting memorial to the Columbia astronauts and all the others who have died on this frontier.

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Last updated: 7 February 2003 10:55
Created by: Rachel Tunstall

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