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Gardening in Space

On the space shuttle Columbia, an experiment explores chemical growth without gravity and the challenges of orbital science

David Jones

On March 6, 1993, scientists around the world awaited the launch of the space shuttle Columbia for the D2 research mission. Its dozens of experimental packages were mostly German, but my little British chemical garden took its place among those from other countries. The seven astronauts were strapped in place, and the launch computer counted down through the endless checks?and aborted the launch with three seconds to go. For hours, the astronauts lay over a tank of liquid hydrogen before the long abort procedure allowed them to be rescued. The pending scientific experiments would wait even longer.

The aborted launch disappointed most everyone involved. The D2 mission was a joint venture between NASA and the German space agency DLR. Years before, the two agencies determined all of the big experiments, but my little one fitted in a bit of spare space and free time. While others lamented the aborted launch, it gave me a tiny ray of hope, because my chemical-garden experiment was in trouble. One of its two units was leaking. The aborted shuttle would remain upright on its launch pad for at least a month before NASA would try to launch it again. In that time, many experiments would have to be repacked. The biological ones, for example, would not keep. The repacking crews would come close to my chemical garden in a few weeks. They could exchange the leaky unit for a spare, if I could get one ready and out to Cape Kennedy in time!

Figure 1. Ulrich Walter . . .Click to Enlarge Image

To explain how I had got myself in this fix, let me tell a story from 1982. George Pimentel was showing me the chemistry department at the University of California at Berkeley. The workshop there was like the one I knew in the chemistry department at the University of Newcastle, but about 10 times the size. "Here," said Pimentel, "is where we built the spectrometer that went to Mars." Wow! I thought. What a wonderful boast. So, when I had the chance to do some space science of my own, I leapt at it.

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