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MIT reacts to shuttle crash

Yesterday's crash of the space shuttle Challenger will set back the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) shuttle program by "anywhere from six to twelve months," said Joseph H. Binsack PhD '66, associate director of MIT's Center for Space Research (CSR).

Several other researchers at MIT responded similarly. CSR Director Gordon H. Pettengill '48 predicted that NASA will not launch any more space shuttles until it determines the cause of the accident.

NASA will probe for a good explanation of what caused Challenger to explode, Binsack said. Once NASA has identified the source of the explosion, it will search for a way to ensure that such an incident does not happen again, he continued.

"No one in their right mind would go ahead with the space program without analyzing the data and coming up with some very good hypothesis of what happened," Binsack said.

NASA had planned 15 shuttle missions for this year. It will probably cancel all of the missions in the next couple of months, Binsack said.

Binsack and Pettengill would not speculate on what might have caused the apparent explosion of the Challenger's main fuel tank. "We don't get involved with the propulsion systems," Pettengill said.

"We've been watching the films just like everyone else," Binsack added. "There's just a lack of information so far."

George L. Sarver III G, a student at the MIT Space Systems Laboratory, said he and his colleagues crowded around a small television set when the explosion occurred and watched the story unfold. Later, most went back to work but continued to listen to the television. "I don't think a lot of work was getting done," Sarver said.

"If you're an engineer, you know there's always a chance that an accident can happen. You know deep down that it's possible. There is a deep sadness because there's not much you can do about it. You know everything possible was done." He said he believes NASA has done a good job in preventing accidents.

The Challenger accident could mar what at first appeared to be a promising year in space exploration, Sarver said. NASA planned to launch a space telescope this year, which might enable scientists to see the edge of the universe. NASA also planned to use some space shuttle missions to observe Halley's Comet.

In what he called "pure speculation," Sarver said the accident might adversely affect NASA's manned space station project. NASA might also limit the number of civilians on the shuttle crew.

The public's perception of the space program as infallible would probably be moderated to a more realistic view, Sarver said.

Sarver said that the shuttle's propulsion system consists of two solid rocket boosters, three main engines and a large external tank that holds fuel. The rocket boosters initially release asphalt and, once started, cannot stop. They detach from the shuttle when they are empty. The external tank contains fuel consisting of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, and also detaches when it is spent.

Yesterday morning, the shuttle's external fuel tank exploded, and the solid rocket boosters were thrown off one minute before they had been used up. The cause of the explosion remains unknown.

MIT experiment was on board

MIT professors were involved with one of the experiments on Challenger. Assistant Professor Robert V. Kenyon of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics said its goal was to look at tissue development in chicken embryos at microgravity. The project was to be a joint effort by scientists at MIT, the Tufts Medical Center and Purdue University.

The MIT scientists were to examine the effects of weightlessness upon the vestibular system in animals, according to Peter Diamandis G, founder of the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space.

Kentucky Fried Chicken, which is interested in poultry products raised in space, is partially subsidizing the experiment, providing $50,000 of its $2 million budget.

Sherwood Modestino, a member of the CSR technical research staff, said Challenger had been scheduled to launch a communications satellite during the mission. The satellite would have completed a space communications network, allowing spacecraft to maintain "an almost constant contact" with Earth, she said.

Memorial service

Rabbi Daniel Shevitz said that chaplains would hold prayer, meditation, counselling and a brief memorial service today at noon in the MIT Chapel.

(Editor's note: Thomas T. Huang, Earl C. Yen, Ben Stanger and Harold A. Stern contributed to the research and writing of this article.)