An Important Mission For Science

Of course, MEIDEX and Ramon's presence were high-profile elements of the mission, but the main purpose of STS-107 was to fill a genuine need of the life and microgravity research communities to have a flight opportunity for their experiments while the fledgling International Space Station was being built. Since December 1998, when the STS-88 crew hauled the Unity node up to the Russian Zarya control module and kicked-off the multi-billion-dollar project, all but four of 20 Shuttle missions had been devoted to assembling and supplying the outpost.

Of those four 'outsiders', two had serviced the Hubble Space Telescope, one deployed Chandra and another extensively radar-mapped Earth's surface from orbit. Not since the autumn of 1998 had a Shuttle mission been exclusively dedicated to science and this caused concern not only to researchers, but also to Congress, who were aware that the United States could lose its global 'lead' in the microgravity arena. ''We can't expect the scientific community to remain engaged if researchers do not see hope that there will be research flight opportunities on a regular basis,'' Congressman Dana Rohrabacher told a March 2000 hearing.

There were other benefits of carrying experiments on two-week Shuttle flights rather than six-month station expeditions. ''In our case,'' said Rick Husband, ''there are some experiments that can be designed for shorter duration so that [scientists] can send these up, they can get the results back, they can do some analysis and then they can turn them around and try to go fly again. On the space station, they may have some experiments that are designed for a longer duration, to take a look at a process over a longer period of time than . . . you can achieve on the Shuttle.''

That STS-107 was inextricably linked to the International Space Station had never been in doubt. In fact, John Charles, NASA's mission scientist for biological and physical research, had long referred to it as doing ''simulated space station science ... although the science itself stands on its own right.'' He added that many of the life and physical science studies allocated to the mission would have an overwhelming emphasis on improving crew health and safety in readiness for extended stays in low-Earth orbit.

Congressman Dave Weldon, a Republican for the Shuttle's home state of Florida and colleague of Rohrabacher, agreed that research missions like STS-107 were essential for demonstrating scientific experiments before committing them, on a longer-term basis, to the station. Unfortunately, for a time, this government backing was crippled by a mission called 'Triana' which, bizarrely, had been conceived in a dream by then-US Vice President Al Gore. Named after Rodrigo de Triana - the lookout on Christopher Columbus' first voyage to the New World - it was billed as a 21st-century Earth-gazing Internet lookout with questionable scientific merits.

Gore's 'challenge' to NASA was to build a relatively inexpensive satellite for between $25 and $50 million that would broadcast real-time, 24-hour views of our home planet over the Internet. However, the simple, camera-equipped satellite quickly acquired several other instruments and cost four times as much as Gore had estimated. It received negative assessments from NASA's inspector-general and an angry Congressional review of its scientific worthiness. By the time it was being built, a place had already been earmarked for Triana on STS-107. This annoyed the microgravity community, who felt their experiments were being hampered by weight limitations imposed by the satellite.

As the National Academy of Sciences debated the merits of Triana, it soon became clear that it could not be finished in time for Columbia's launch - then targeted for the summer of 2001 - and it was pulled from the flight. In its place was a facility with a mouthful of an acronym: the Fast Reaction Experiments Enabling Science, Technology, Applications and Research (FREESTAR), which would house six high-priority instruments, including the Israeli dust-and-sprite-watching camera, on a pallet at the rear of the payload bay.

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