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October 24, 2002 Raye and James Kass saddened by Columbia crash



by Barbara Black

When the Columbia space shuttle disintegrated just before landing on Feb. 1 killing the seven astronauts, a scientist with links to Concordia was particularly stricken by the tragedy.

James Kass, a space physicist and an alumnus of Sir George Williams University, had been working with the astronaut team on some zero-gravity experiments in biology, such as measurement of loss of bone mass in space, a subject of interest especially for a mission to Mars.

Kass has worked for nearly 25 years in the field of space physiology, psychology and operations, mainly at a university in Germany, and now at the European space agency in Nordwijk, Holland. His sister, Raye Kass, is a psychologist and an associate professor of applied human sciences at Concordia. She is an expert in small-group dynamics, and the two have worked together on space projects, notably the 240-day Russian SFINCSS mission in 1999-2000.

James Kass holds the title of adjunct professor in Concordia’s Applied Human Sciences Department and lectures here once a year. He has worked with NASA since the first Spacelab mission in 1983 and saw his research interrupted with the 1986 Challenger disaster. He was in Cape Canaveral at Mission Control on Feb. 1, waiting for the astronauts to land.

Raye Kass was in contact with her brother, and said he was devastated by the loss. The shuttle exploded over the southern U.S.; debris is still being collected and analyzed to determine a cause.

“He lost all his data, and all his subjects are dead,” Raye Kass said this week. Yet “he was more concerned over the loss of such good people.”

The Columbia was basically a laboratory in orbit. Launched Jan. 16, it involved more than a dozen experiments in space. The space physicist was leading several astronauts through various procedures, which they underwent with patience and good humour.

“These astronauts were such a diverse group, and they were so team-oriented,” she said. “They were very down-to-earth people... and very humble.”

As a psychologist fascinated by research on a small group of people working in a constricted space far from Earth, Kass was also saddened by the accident.

Kass said the Russians were the first to realize how important human compatibility and interaction are to a space mission, but the Americans caught on. Before the launch, for example, Columbia captain Rick Husband took his team on an 11-day trek to establish trust and camaraderie.

Raye Kass said, “On Feb. 4, in my Leadership class, I said, ‘The shuttle is lost, but lessons are learned.’ I told them, ‘Go after what you believe,’ and the students were deeply moved.”