As the nation mourned the loss on Feb. 1 of the space shuttle Columbia's seven astronauts, so grieved the Johns Hopkins community, a part of NASA's extended family.
The university has a longstanding connection with the federal agency, collaborating on numerous research projects and space science missions, both manned and unmanned. Recent and notable NASA-JHU endeavors include FUSE (Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer); NEAR Shoemaker (Near-Earth Asteroid Rendezvous) and CONTOUR (Comet Nucleus Tour).
As part of the space shuttle program, the university has made significant contributions to 11 missions to date. Just one year ago, Columbia carried the Advanced Camera for Surveys built by a team led by Johns Hopkins astronomy professor Holland Ford. The instrument was designed to enhance the capabilities of the Hubble Space Telescope.
The JHU connection with Columbia did not end there, however; when the shuttle launched on Jan. 16, it contained two experiments developed by faculty from the schools of Engineering, Medicine and Public Health.
Artin Shoukas, a professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, was the co-investigator on a Columbia-borne rodent experiment sponsored by the NASA-funded National Space Biomedical Research Institute. Johns Hopkins was one of the five universities that originally formed the NSBRI, which has grown to include 12 major research universities and also sponsors projects from investigators in a large number of additional institutions.
NSBRI endeavors to understand the ill effects of space travel on man and develop countermeasures to these problems.
Shoukas, in collaboration with Dan Berkowitz from the School of Medicine's Department of Anesthesia and Critical Care Medicine and Michael Delp from Texas A&M University, developed a terrestrial model involving rats and have discovered specific abnormalities in the control of the heart and vascular system. Because of the importance of their findings, the researchers' experiments were selected for the Columbia mission. Shoukas' team, which included four undergraduates, was in Florida to study the rats when they returned from their 16 days of weightlessness in space.
Another experiment aboard Columbia involved the work of Kimberly O'Brien, an associate professor in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health's Department of International Health and in the Johns Hopkins Center for Human Nutrition. O'Brien was part of a NASA-led team studying calcium kinetics during space flight. The bone loss that astronauts experience is similar to that experienced by individuals with osteoporosis. This study employed stable calcium isotope tracers to explore how and why weightlessness during space flight induces bone loss and to help understand how to recover normal calcium metabolism after return to Earth.
Bill Blair, a research professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and FUSE's chief of observatory operations, said that for him and his colleagues, a group with personal connections to the space program, an event like the Columbia tragedy stirs a lot of emotions.
"While we here are less directly related to manned space flight than we were back in the 1990s, it certainly doesn't mean it hurts any less. We all feel part of the same family," said Blair, who was involved in the planning activities for the Astro-1 Columbia shuttle mission in 1990. "Even though we didn't know these seven astronauts especially, we know enough astronauts, like those who helped service Hubble last year and gave of their time to speak [here] at the Space Telescope Science Institute."
Astrophysicist Sam Durrance, who was a research scientist for 16 years at Johns Hopkins, was the university's first and only astronaut. He rode on two space shuttle missions, in 1990 and 1995, and when he left the university to join private industry, his colleagues hung a poster of him in the Bloomberg Center for Physics and Astronomy. It was a photo of Durrance taken inside Columbia as it orbited the earth.
Steven Knapp, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, said that as thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the astronauts and the entire NASA community, now is also a time to recognize the work of the astronauts and of the nation's space program, and its importance to all mankind.
"No one should minimize the safety issues as NASA goes forward. We certainly want to make sure that all future manned space missions are safe, and that all that can be done in this area will be done," Knapp said. "But we also hope that everything doesn't get put on hold and that the agency can continue its mission of exploration and research."
President William R. Brody told the Johns Hopkins community in a Feb. 4 broadcast message that beyond the loss of the Columbia experiments, "there is now a serious possibility that scientific experiments related to manned space flight may be suspended for the foreseeable future. We hope not. As has been repeated in news reports many times in the last few days, no matter what happened to them, the astronauts wanted the space program and all that it entailed to proceed."