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Space program deserves more of our attention

August 19, 2007|By LINDA DUFFIELD

As I write this, crew members of the space shuttle Endeavour are preparing to leave the international space station and head back to Earth.

They will make the trip knowing that NASA decided the astronauts did not have to repair a 31/2-inch gouge that penetrated the thermal shielding on the ship's belly. That happened when a grapefruit-sized piece of insulating foam hit the shuttle when it lifted off on Aug. 8.

Despite NASA's reassurances that the gouge doesn't pose a threat on re-entry, the specter lingers of space shuttle Columbia breaking apart over Texas in 2003. A gash caused by a piece of foam at liftoff made Columbia no match for the heat of re-entering the Earth's atmosphere.

Space flight is risky, we know that. But with a few notable exceptions - 17 astronauts have died on the job since 1967, and the three crew members of Apollo 13 had a close call - it has all looked so easy, almost effortless.

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Perhaps that apparent ease, coupled with the short attention spans of humans, is why interest in space exploration has waned since the time when the United States, at the urging of President Kennedy, launched a program that would take us to the moon.

Man walked on the lunar surface for the first time on July 20, 1969, and made what so far was the last moon landing on Dec. 12, 1972.

These days, a shuttle flight doesn't generate much excitement, and a lot of the romance and mystique that once surrounded NASA are gone.

We have gotten so blas that many of us don't watch shuttle liftoffs and landings. Updates on what's going on up there, even when the crew could be in peril, don't lead the newscasts or make page A1.

The point of NASA's mission is questioned.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend asked why the United States spends billions of dollars each year on NASA. The question was posed: What have we gotten in return for all that money we spend on the space program other than moon rocks and Velcro?

What, indeed? I decided to do some research. Here's a smattering of what NASA lists on the Web, and it goes way beyond rocks, Velcro and Tang.

· NASA technology gave us a "cool" laser, which provides thousands of patients with an alternative to heart bypass surgery.

· Hubble Space Telescope technology has made it possible to do certain breast biopsies with a needle instead of a scalpel.

· The foam insulation that covers the shuttle's external tank, developed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and Lockheed-Martin, is used to make molds for fitting artificial limbs.

· Medical personnel can monitor fetal activity inside the womb using a small pill-shaped transmitter developed at NASA's Ames Research Center.

· The same material used for lightweight, durable spacesuits is used as permanent covering for shopping centers and sports stadiums. NASA technology also is used to pad football helmets and baseball and soccer chest protectors and shin guards.

NASA-driven technology also makes possible satellite TV transmission and telephone signals that are beamed around the world.

It has led to microcapsules that help clean up oil spills and to satellite remote sensing technology that locates and maps forest fires.

There's a lot more. If you're interested, you can learn more at techtran.msfc.nasa.gov/at_home.html.

You can check out information about and pictures from the Hubble telescope at www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/hubble.

And while you're at it, you might want to wish for the best for the Endeavour crew. Maybe even watch the landing, which at this point is scheduled for Tuesday.

Linda Duffield is associate editor of The Herald-Mail. You can reach her at lindad@herald-mail.com.

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