Chris Brown, now working with North Carolina State University, used to run the space biology lab at Cape Canaveral.
"It was as if all the air went out of my lungs. I felt like I needed to sit down right where I was. It was an awful feeling," he said.
Brown said the Columbia astronauts were studying the effects of gravity on plants, information that could help farmers protect their crops from wind damage.
"If we could understand how to accelerate the response of plants bending back up, that would be an useful application here on Earth," he said.
Other Columbia experiments focused on bone loss, which happens more rapidly in space. That research could help treat osteoporosis on Earth.
"The kind of research that was going on, and there were a number of experiments on bone and calcium metabolism in space that was going to be useful for geriatric medicine," he said.
The loss of Columbia is staggering for everyone involved in the space program, but the concept of space exploration appeals to the pioneering spirit of people everywhere. Brown said that is why he believes the space program will continue.
"Our whole nation and much of the world was mourning. That shows that space exploration is so important, deep down important," he said.
Brown said the space program has become safer after every disaster. The design of capsules improved after the Apollo I fire, and shuttle safety improved after the Challenger disaster.
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