25 years after Challenger, UF experts look to NASA's future


Published: Thursday, January 27, 2011 at 3:05 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 27, 2011 at 11:38 p.m.

In the wake of the space shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986, NASA created a medical support team to respond in case of emergencies.

A team of University of Florida doctors and nurses was selected for the task and has been a mainstay at launches in the decades since the disaster. Team medical director Dr. Kevin Ferguson said the work has given him an appreciation of the lengths to which NASA has gone to ensure successful missions.

"There's always going to be a risk in any adventure like this, but all you can do is foresee what you can," he said.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, leading to reflection on its consequences and the future of space travel as the shuttle program ends this year. UF astronomy professor Bo Gustafson said that at the time of the explosion, he was working on instruments being sent aboard shuttle missions, which were delayed in its aftermath.

"That was a minor problem to us compared to losing the Challenger, of course," he said.

Gustafson said he believes the space shuttle program never truly rebounded from the accident. An expectation of more regular flights never materialized, and there ended up being longer delays between missions, he said.

He said he sees the end of the shuttle program as an opportunity for NASA to forge in a new direction, directing limited resources to unmanned satellites that are less costly and less risky.

"There are alternatives, at least for the type of science missions that I'm involved with," he said.

Robert Ferl, director of UF's Interdisciplinary Center for Biotechnology Research, is the program leader for UF life sciences researchers based at Kennedy Space Center. He said researchers who have relied on the shuttle to send experiments into space hope for only a short gap between the end of the program and the commercial missions expected to take its place.

"Just like everyone else, we're hoping that the commercial ventures come on quickly," he said.

Corin Segal, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at UF, conducts research on propulsion for hypersonic flight. He said he hopes the end of the shuttle program leads to a greater reliance on low-orbit flights that operate more like an airplane than a rocket, which he said is more cost-effective.

"The shuttle program should wind down because it's an old device and it's time for it to be replaced with something else," he said.

Peggy Evanich, an aerospace engineer in UF's astronomy department, spent more than two decades with NASA. She said she's concerned lawmakers are dictating the design of future spacecraft to NASA rather than listening to agency scientists.

"Let the engineers and technologists do their jobs," she said.

She recalls being at NASA's Washington, D.C., headquarters at the time of the Challenger disaster, calling it a "painfully sobering moment and weeks after that."

Ferguson, now an assistant professor of emergency and critical care at UF, was an emergency medicine resident in Los Angeles at the time of the explosion. He was part of the UF NASA Medical Support Team at the time of the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003. Because the shuttle disintegrated during re-entry, there was nothing team members could do.

The team includes two physicians and two nurses assigned to work each day a shuttle might launch.

Team members undergo training that simulates potential disasters.

Ferguson said he hopes the team will be able to continue in a similar role with the private missions expected to replace the program.

"I'm actually excited about what's going to come," he said.

Contact Nathan Crabbe at 338-3176 or nathan.crabbe@gvillesun.com.

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