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N.C. State Aerospace Professor, Former Shuttle Passenger Discuss 'Tragedy Of International Magnitude'

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RALEIGH, N.C. — One of the oldest Aerospace programs in the country is located at N.C. State. Scientists and researchers there watched Saturday's shuttle disaster closely.

"This is a tragedy of an international magnitude," said Dr. Mohammed Noori, an Aerospace professor at NCSU.

Another person who watched Saturday with a keen interest was Capt. Charles Brady of Robbins, N.C. Brady has flown on the shuttle Columbia, which exploded shortly after it entered the earth's atmosphere while bringing seven astronauts home from their mission.

Noori and Brady theorized Saturday that heat generated during the shuttle's re-entry, and perhaps a faulty heat shield, were likely factors in the tragedy.

Brady, whose town dedicated a mural in his honor, flew on STS-78 in 1996. It became the longest shuttle mission to date, lasting 17 days.

Brady said that re-entering the earth's atmosphere is one of the most critical times. He said the heat generated during re-entry is equivalent to being on the surface of the sun.

"Re-entering the earth's atmosphere is like being on the end of a comet," he said. "And there's tremendous American engineering that's gone into protecting that shuttle and assuring that the surfaces can take that heating.

"But all the surfaces have to work correctly, and . . . it's always hazardous."

Brady, who has logged more than 400 hours in space, said NASA engineers work tirelessly to ensure the shuttle's safety.

"I mean, it's not a job with these people," Brady said. "It's a passion, and it's a passion for the country and a passion for knowledge. So I felt like I was protected by 150,000 Americans."

Meanwhile, Noori, one of N.C. State's top professors, speculated that one or more of the ceramic tiles which act as heat shields on the shuttle may have broken loose Saturday.

"As the spacecraft is coming in, a tremendous heat is generated," Noori said. "If one of the shields goes loose, then basically you're talking about tremendous heat stress that generates and almost in no time can disintegrate the structure."

The Columbia was the oldest space shuttle in NASA's fleet. This was it's 28th mission since the early 1980's. Noori said it's likely the shuttle's age played a role in the tragedy.

"The deterioration of these, how they age," he said. "Maybe we have overlooked doing adequate research on what the long-term impact is on the kind of load they're subjected to, enormous heat."

Noori said the explosion will be a huge setback to the space program. It could be five years before another American shuttle heads into space.

"How do we develop sensors, or a mechanisms to monitor and prevent potential damages in the future?" Noori said.

Noori said NASA should start to explore the idea of "unmanned space flights" more closely. In those flights, robots are used to carry out the mission and experiments instead of humans.

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