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Released February 27, 2003

By Christopher Mapp

HATTIESBURG - As the public and Congress debate the relevance of the national space program following the recent space shuttle Columbia catastrophe, a University of Southern Mississippi professor and his student researchers are watching NASA's future keenly as one of their experiments hangs in the balance.

Chemistry Professor John Pojman and a team of Southern Miss students are working on a research project that is slated to go aboard the International Space Program in the next several years. But funding for NASA -- and by extension, Pojman's experiment – has been threatened in the wake of the Columbia tragedy, which claimed the lives of seven astronauts.

"I'm concerned what the tragedy will do for the whole space program," said Pojman, whose research projects have been supported by NASA since 1998.

"So many people worked for so long to make it a success. I fear what happened after the Challenger disaster could happen now, putting everything on hold for years. And just when the program was gaining so much momentum."

Pojman's experiment concerns miscible fluids and was designed to "develop a greater understanding of how polymer molecules interact with small molecules," he said.

Brian Zoltowski is a graduate researcher who worked with Pojman last summer aboard the NASA's KC-135 "vomit comet," an airplane that can simulate weightlessness. Zoltowski said their newest project is going to try to prove a "100-year-old theory" that suggests in weightlessness, miscible fluids – or fluids that can mix together – could act like immiscible fluids – those fluids that cannot mix.

"Until space exploration, this theory could not be tested," Zoltowski said.

That's why the experiment's future hinges on NASA's future: it cannot be done without the effects of weightlessness. Said Pojman, "There's no way on Earth, as we like to say."

Despite Columbia's demise, President George W. Bush has pledged $15.5 billion to NASA for the fiscal year 2004. While Pojman said he thinks the benefits of continuing science's march outweigh the risks of continuing space exploration, he knows the decision will ultimately come down to the public.

"Research done on the space station can only be done there, and I'm confident that all of the experiments planned for the space station are valuable ones that may also have a long-term, practical application for humanity," he said.

"But whether the public wants to pay for it is a political choice, and we don't have an absolute right to their money," he added.

To his knowledge, Pojman said the Southern Miss experiment is still scheduled in 2006 to go aboard the international space station – currently manned by three astronauts who will likely be retrieved by a Russian space shuttle in April.

Whether or not the schedule holds, however, is the "$100 billion question," he said.

"This is making an already complicated situation worse because we were already stressed greatly with scientific investigation being put on hold, in terms of funding, and now this makes it more uncertain," Pojman said. "The timetable for experiments may be pushed back further."


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April 20, 2004 4:09 PM