Scientists claim shuttle 'not vital'

February 7, 2003

The loss of the space shuttle Columbia may have been a human tragedy but many US scientists say its impact on research is less than catastrophic, despite the loss of more than 100 on-board experiments.

Critics have claimed that the science undertaken aboard the shuttle and on the International Space Station bore little serious scrutiny. They said the experiments were being used to justify the shuttle.

Robert L. Park, professor of physics at the University of Maryland, said:

"The only thing unique about doing research on an orbiting platform is low gravity, and that turns out to be much less important than was originally thought."

He cited study of how zero gravity affects a spider spinning its web. "I don't know how that turned out, and I guess the world will never know," he said. "But it just wasn't an important experiment. A lot of this was done to motivate students. That's not a bad thing, but it was an expensive way to do it." Dr Park said money should be used to build a more advanced telescope than Hubble to search for life on other planets.

Barry Render, a former aerospace engineer who teaches at Rollins College in Florida, said 90 per cent of scientific experiments on shuttles could be done without humans.

Theodore Postol, a professor of science, technology and national-security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said: "You don't need a reusable vehicle to do those experiments. The Russians have shown that you can do very well without."

Other scientists were less concerned with philosophical debate. "For us the question is: when will we be able to get our experiment on another shuttle?" Montreal University molecular biologist Miroslaw Cygler said.

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