Columbia's Triumph

July 13, 1992

From one perspective, space shuttle Columbia's 14-day mission might look like small potatoes. Russian cosmonauts have completed 300-day missions aboard the Mir space platform, blazing orbital survival trails and building a data base that could be invaluable for such long-term missions as a joint voyage to Mars. Even the Americans, in the heyday of Skylab, managed an 84-day stay in weightless space, a record in 1974.

But there are other perspectives. Columbia, on the 48th U.S. shuttle flight, performed many experiments that ground-based scientists could not even try. Several had to do with AIDS. Reaching inside a sealed, transparent container with special gloves, payload specialist Larry Delucas grew crystallized samples of an enzyme from the human immunodeficiency virus and other proteins related to the dread killer. The AIDS proteins and 27 other protein crystals cultivated on the historic flight, vastly larger than those grown on the ground, will permit precise determinations of their structure. That can lead to major advances in medical treatment, or even to new chemical products for consumer uses.

Investigations of how water globules act in a weightless environment may seem frivolous to some. But what seems impractical now could have big payoffs tomorrow. Being able to test surface-tension effects without the interference of gravity, scientists may one day apply that knowledge to improve the design of devices as different as, say, heater and engine fuel-metering nozzles, air-conditioner expansion valves or even spray outlets for medicines and cosmetics. You never know until you see what such an experiment can uncover.

Other experiments investigated upper-atmosphere weather patterns, tested physics concepts or proved out ideas useful for the construction of the Freedom space station as astronauts put the 22,000-pound orbital laboratory through its paces.

This was the longest U.S. manned mission since the 1970s. Shuttles have been superseded for the satellite launches first envisioned, but their utility in boosting to orbit space station components and astronauts to assemble them is unsurpassed. Seeing NASA come back from its post-Challenger comatose state to handle such a complex mission so smoothly is good therapy for those worried about the vitality of the U.S. technology base.

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