WASHINGTON - The ill-fated Columbia space shuttle conducted two sets of experiments on fuel combustion to improve engines for cars and trucks.
The leaders of the two research efforts said they lost recorded information when the shuttle disintegrated on its return to Earth but collected enough to declare the experiments a success.
Both leaders lamented the loss of the astronauts they had come to know as colleagues and friends during months of preparation for the flight and during the 16-day mission.
"It's a very close relationship," said Gerard Faeth, professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich. "It's almost like they are in your laboratory. We got to know all seven of them."
Faeth studies soot formation. Finding ways to eliminate soot would lead to cleaner running utility plants, aircraft and diesel engines, he said.
Paul Ronney, professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, had the astronauts ignite extremely lean fuel mixtures to create tiny flame balls.
Astronaut Dave Brown was so intrigued by the flame balls that he gave them names.
"It's as though seven USC graduate students were killed in an accident in my laboratory," said Ronney, describing the bonds that formed between the astronauts and the researchers.
Ronney, 45, who has trained for space flight but has not gone on a mission, said the flame balls are important to him in the same way the fruit fly cells are important to a geneticist: He tries to understand the simple so he can understand the complex.
Burning lean fuel mixtures without creating pollutants is a major goal of engineers.
Neither Faeth's nor Ronney's research is underwritten by the auto industry. Ronney thinks some results of his research are being used by automotive engineers to create engine model designs.
Faeth, 67, said his research is so fundamental that he would not expect it to influence diesel engines for five to 15 years.
In the debate over the value of sending humans into space, Ronney and Faeth said having people rather than robots conduct zero-gravity experiments is essential.
"With the kind of things we do, we really do need humans to make decisions," Faeth said.
His equipment needs to be visually monitored, repeatedly adjusted and modified occasionally, he said. And findings are based on experimenter observations as well as soot samples.
As for Ronney's aspiration for space flight, even now he said, "I would love to have the chance."