NU experts urge NASA to continue exploring space

Sheila Burt

With the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s manned space program coming under scrutiny after last month’s Columbia space shuttle disaster, four Northwestern professors involved with planning NASA’s future say scientific discovery — the original intent of space exploration — must be preserved.

The shuttle exploded over the Western half of the United States on Feb. 1, killing all seven crew and prompting many to question the merit of manned space exploration.

Laurie Zoloth, a professor of medical ethics and humanities who focuses on the social impact of human exploration, said NASA’s main goal should be human exploration of space, despite the potential consequences.

Zoloth, who serves on the Planetary Protection Advisory Committee and National Advisory Committee on Space and Aeronautics, said exploration to places like Mars should eventually involve humans even though the space exploration accomplished by NASA using robots is “very beautiful.”

“Ultimately, some point of going to space is to have it be with humans,” she said. “It’s risky, but there are a lot of risky things (people do).”

At NASA’s request, a committee led by material sciences and engineering Prof. Peter Voorhees recently examined whether microgravity research, which studies what role gravity plays in planets, is worthwhile. Microgravity research has gone without much support because some critics have said the research “never led to anything important,” Voorhees said.

The committee reported to NASA that microgravity research has had an impact on the scientific community. One area the committee’s report deemed “most important” involves the use of nanotechnology for energy conversion. The committee started the investigation three years ago and delivered its findings to NASA last fall.

“We came down on the positive side, that the program is healthy,” Voorhees said.

Without microgravity research, Voorhees said a basic understanding of scientific processes, such as combustion, or burning, would be impossible. NASA’s research has focused on creating a broad understanding of physical processes.

“What you lose when you don’t (push) forward is a basic understanding of processes that may have an impact,” Voorhees said. “Basic understandings can be applied in many areas.”

One professor sees the future of NASA-sponsored research in the nation’s universities.

Mechanical engineering Prof. Rod Ruoff leads the Institute for Biologically Inspired Materials — or BIMat — and the Institute for Nanoelectronics and Computing at NU.

BIMat, a program that began last October, is one of seven new virtual NASA centers at universities around the country. BIMat will receive $20 million over the next 10 years from NASA to work on long-range projects that develop light-weight materials for space and civilian aircraft.

In addition to NU, the University of California–Santa Barbara, University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill and Princeton University are also participating in the program.

Ruoff said this interdisciplinary program also marks a trend toward more private industry involvement, as well as research, focusing on aerodynamics in addition to space.

BIMat might affiliate with industrial companies such as General Motors and aircraft manufacturer Boeing. But Ruoff said he would like to split his time between researching and looking at industrial companies.

“I think a good percentage of the forefront research (for NASA) is being done in universities,” he said. “To leverage this effort involves young people, having them mix together, and us coming to the center. Those sorts of visits can energize the resources (of NASA).”

Ruoff said he has been pleased with the progress of BIMat, which is still in its early stages.

“We’re making progress on fabricating and testing new nanocomposites,” he said.

Physics and astronomy Prof. Melville Ulmer, who has worked with NASA since 1966 on projects related to astrophysics, called space exploration — by both humans and robots — necessary to understand our planet.

“Without people in space, humans on the street lose interest,” Ulmer said. “I think we need to keep sending things into space. … We spend lots of money on things that aren’t practical.”

Zoloth also said humans are born with an innate curiosity about what is beyond our world. Space exploration can also bring about peaceful collaborations among nations, she added.

“Unlike much of human endeavors, science is about international peaceful collaboration,” Zoloth said. “It’s a rare moment.”