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Stanford Report, March 12, 2003

Osheroff appointed to shuttle disaster investigative board


NASA has appointed Nobel laureate Douglas Osheroff, the J. G. Jackson and C. J. Wood Professor of Physics, as one of three new members of the team investigating the Feb. 1 loss of the space shuttle Columbia.

"I am honored that they think I have the knowledge and skills they need," Osheroff wrote in an e-mail interview from Washington, D.C., where he was preparing to judge the Intel Science Talent Search. "I am also more than a bit apprehensive. I hope I can contribute, and that we can find what we need."

Also appointed March 5, the other new members of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board are John Logsdon, director of the George Washington University Space Policy Institute, and Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. Ride, a Stanford alumna, holds the Ingrid and Joseph W. Hibben Chair in Space Science & Education at the University of California-San Diego. She flew aboard the space shuttle Challenger in 1983 and 1984 and served on the Presidential commission investigating its subsequent explosion in 1986.

Osheroff's selection echoes that of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman to the team investigating the Challenger explosion. "I am certainly no Richard Feynman," Osheroff said. "He was a brilliant physicist; I am a very good experimental physicist." During the Challenger investigation, Feynman clarified a complex concept by forcing a bent O-ring into ice water to demonstrate how cold robbed it of the ability to spring back to the shape it needed to seal a joint. "I am not sure I am the best person for the job," Osheroff said, "but will give it my best effort."

The ongoing investigation is on a fast track because of the importance of shuttles to support astronauts now at the space station. A contingent of 70 experts have convened at Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston, and much of the shuttle debris has been assembled at Kennedy Space Flight Center in Florida, Osheroff said.

"I doubt this will go on as long as the investigation of the Challenger disaster took [four months], but I think this has to take as long as it takes to get the answers, and to understand what needs to be done," he said. Since Osheroff chairs the Physics Department, associate chair Professor Robert Wagoner will take the helm during his absence. Osheroff has cancelled his Spring quarter classes.

Osheroff received physics degrees from Caltech (B.S. 1967) and Cornell (M.S. 1969 and Ph.D. 1973). His research focuses on the properties of matter near absolute zero.

The physicist shared the 1996 Nobel Prize with David M. Lee and Robert C. Richardson for discovering superfluidity in helium-3. He is member of the National Academy of Sciences whose other honors include the Sir Francis Simon Memorial Prize for discoveries in low-temperature physics, the American Physical Society's Oliver E. Buckley Prize in Condensed Matter Physics, a Walter J. Gores Award for Excellence in Teaching and a MacArthur Prize.