Five NASA Scientists Reflect on a Year of Turmoil

To biochemist Nitza Cintron, a member of what she describes as "the NASA family,"

By | January 26, 1987

To biochemist Nitza Cintron, a member of what she describes as "the NASA family," the Challenger accident brought with it a great sense of loss. As chief of the 75-person Biomedical Laboratories at Johnson Space Center, Cintron believes the accident has had a greater impact on operational responsibilities—supporting shuttle flights—than on basic research. But there are lots of projects that can only be done in space which have been temporarily suspended.

Some of Cintron's own research into the atrial natriuretic factor (ANF) is stymied by the shutdown. Cintron, who joined the Center after completing her doctorate in biochemistry at Johns Hopkins Medical School in 1978, is looking for a possible connection between ANF and the human physiological response to space flight.

So far, she said, they've gotten some nice results. But she added, "researching in space takes time to get a good experimental basis, and we still don't have the whole story." With the shuttle grounded, some of the chapters will not be told soon. "But we'll start up again," promised the 36-year-old Cintron. "No one doubts that."

The problems she has experienced with funding related more to the overall federal deficit, she believes, "Gramm-Rudman and so forth." But Jerry L. Homick, deputy chief of the. Medical Services Division at Johnson, acknowledged that some money for flight-related life science research projects has been diverted to building the new, replacement orbiter. And, he adds, some science will have to be done with less data or with data collected on later flights, including the Space Station.

Morale at the life sciences program took a serious dip after the accident, Cintron said, even if scientists were not personally involved. "Even though we're in a different area, whether it's engineering or life sciences, there's pretty much a sense of team and family, and so it affected us all, as it did the nation. Perhaps more so because it was like losing family. And then, after that, there were all the investigations."

However, she said the message from upper management has always been clear. "It was a matter of getting up and continuing. We will resume flight and we will do that as safely as possible. No one walks around with any sort of doubt that we will."

She paused, then added, "But it's been a hard year."

Above All, A Great Waste of People

Moustafa T. Chahine, chief scientist at the NASA home facility for such planetary missions as Voyager, Galileo, and Magellan, can sum up the post-Challenger era in one word: recession.

"The funds are wasted because you are in a holding position," said the 51-year-old atmospheric scientist, "spending lots of money keeping programs like Galileo and Space Telescope waiting, instead of using them."

But the greater waste, he added, is in human talent. "The long-term impact on human resources cannot really be measured yet, but I know it's going to be severe."

Chahine said the accident revealed the absence of alternative ways to get into space. "Because of the total dependence of the planetary program on the Shuttle," he said, "we have no way of sending our instruments off to the planets.

Chahine is particularly concerned about scientists in their mid-to-late 30s who've spent years building an instrument and preparing it for flight and who now must wait at least five more years before they can obtain any data.

"The scientists who have achieved the position of principal investigators on experiments are suffering," he said. "They're trapped. These people are going to pass the prime of their careers without achieving the publications and the accomplishments they had expected." Added to their burden, Chahine said, is the knowledge that the Soviets may publish first.

Chahine foresees further losses. Graduate students at universities who may have planned to write dissertations based on data from Galileo, for instance, will leave this field for a more promising one.

"We can recover from the loss of money," he said. "But losing young talent that otherwise would have come to the planetary or space program is something we cannot recover from."

Wanted: A Long-Range Plan of Action

Operating at some distance from the space flight projects, chemist Lelia M. Coyne, a San Jose State University grant recipient at NASA's Ames Research Center, believes the Challenger disaster represents part of a much larger malaise within the agency.

"I see what's going on as having started before the Challenger, with that just being the most visible evidence of the other problems," asserted the 47-year-old Coyne. What NASA needs, she said, is a sense of commitment, a sense of dedication, a sense of follow-through.

"There's a lack of long-term force. It's easy to define a program, but to execute it is a long-range thing," she said, requiring sustained funding and support.

Coyne, who received her Ph.D. in chemistry from the California Institute of Technology in 1967, is studying soil samples analogous to those found on Mars with the Mars Exobiology Research Consortium. She's also working on studies of luminescent energy release from clays upon heating, solvation/desolvation and mechanical stress.

Because of the way funding is managed at NASA, she said, "you have to keep selling. It's very high pressure, and not the way you really want to do basic science. She quoted a colleague who told her recently that, 'I've been here 25 years and I've never drawn a secure breath.'"

And yet, she added, "those of us who are doing basic research feel that we are the drivers for the NASA space flights. If it weren't for what we're doing, they couldn't justify the flights.

"My feeling is that, within the Agency, there's a juxtaposition of the strongest of the strong and the finest of the fine with the most superficial of the superficial and the weakest of the weak. You never have a real sense of who's going to win, or where it's going to go."

The Wait For Data From Space

The Challenger disaster has put 54-year-old Bill Kinard and his group in a unique position. Their 57 experiments are stranded not on the ground but in space.

"There is certainly disappointment," said Kinard about the inability of NASA to retrieve the instruments this past year. "We were all anxious to get this facility back and to get on with analyzing the experiments."

Conceived in the late 1960s, the Long Duration Exposure Facility was ready to fly by the mid-1970s. It didn't actually get off the ground until April 1984, and then, despite its planned one year in space, wasn't scheduled for retrieval until 1986. The current retrieval date is the latter half of 1990.

The LDEF experiments are meant to test the effects of space exposure on a wide range of materials and test specimens. But for some LDEF investigators, the data may be useless by the time it is recovered. "I guess about half of the experiments have some negative impact as a result of not being retrieved," Kinard said.

For others, the unexpected five-year extension may prove to be an advantage. "For example, the longer the cosmic dust experiments and the micro-meteoroids experiments are exposed in the space environment, the larger the data sample they'll get and the more value that data has." As chief scientist, Kinard has spent years working on the project and directing its staff, both in-house and through contract.

What worries Kinard most about the problems facing LDEF is its impact on "the younger kids, the postdocs, the graduate students. It takes an awful lot of patience," he said, to risk the start of a career on something that's "out of their control."

These stories were all written by Ray Spangenburg and Diane Moser,
San Francisco-based writers who cover NASA for Space World magazine.

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