A Mission of His Own

By Sarah O'Brien Mackey '89

Lying on his bed, hobbled by a backache that had been nagging him for months, Matthew B. Koss ’83 turned on the TV just in time to hear the devastating news: the space shuttle Columbia had broken up somewhere in the skies over Texas—just 40 miles from Mission Control at Johnson Space Center and only 15 minutes from its scheduled landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. All seven astronauts aboard had died.

The news hit Koss hard. A condensed-matter physicist, he had participated in three previous Columbia missions, conducting research experiments on the fundamentals of how liquids turn into solids. Koss knew the Columbia; he knew its capacity for scientific experiment; he knew the intense bonds that formed among the scientists on the ground, like himself, and the astronauts in orbit; and he knew one of those astronauts, Kalpana Chawla, who had been aboard the doomed flight. “In a curious way,” he said, “I felt that the Columbia was my shuttle.”

At the mercy of his back, Koss remained on the bed, watching news reports all day. As the hours went by, he began to feel a growing dread. The Columbia had been a dedicated science mission, the very same kind of mission on which his own experiments had been performed, and the kind that had long given him pause about the risks they posed to the astronauts who flew them. He could not help turning a single question over and over in his mind: was science to blame for the shuttle disaster?


Collage of images of NASA vehicles and missions
Collage of images of NASA vehicles and missions

Top Left: Mars Rover 1, February 2003 Center: Lunar module Eagle, Apollo 11, July 1969 Right: (top) Astronaut F. Story Musgrave repairs Hubble from Endeavour, 1993; (bottom) Astronaut Steve Smith works on Hubble, 1997 Bottom Left: (left) Space Telescope Operations Center, Goddard Space Flight Center, 1999; (right) Shuttle launch, space shuttle Atlantis, December 1988

Go or No-go?

Now an associate professor of physics at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, Koss first participated in a shuttle mission in 1994 as a research scientist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “The experience was both thrilling and painful,” he recalled. “Watching the launch was almost surreal. Everyone obeys what is called a ‘loop protocol,’ in which the flight director asks all of the launch critical stations, ‘Go or no-go?’ To be there, to listen to them say ‘Go!’ one after the other, was incredibly exciting. Once the shuttle launched, however, it hit me that in 12 hours I would find out if the experiment I had been working on for four years, that was costing millions of dollars, would actually succeed. That was painful.”

Koss’ projects were classified as “payload” experiments. (Mounted in the payload bay—the wide open space in the back of the shuttle—payload experiments are controlled by scientists on the ground, via computer.) During the nine days the shuttle was in orbit, he and his colleagues would analyze the data they received at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Not wanting to waste an hour, they would work around the clock, often forgoing sleep all together. They would also talk amongst themselves about the extraordinary risks the astronauts took to bring their experiments into space. “We were always thinking about the astronauts. They were not strangers. In fact, they were the ones who were telling the American public what we were doing.”

Even as his own experiments yielded new understanding, Koss began to feel uneasy with the way science was used to justify sending astronauts into space. “The truth is that scientists are like hitchhikers on missions. NASA is not taking the trip for us—they would certainly be flying without us. But we make a nice way to sell the program. If you look closely, however, you’ll see that while NASA’s manned program has dominated the funding, the unmanned program has dominated discovery with projects like the rover mission to Mars, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the Cassini mission to Saturn and Titan, and the Deep Impact Encounter with the comet Tempel 1.”

A Terrifying Diagnosis

In the days following the Columbia disaster, Koss continued to follow the news coverage closely. He also found that the pain in his back was growing steadily worse. On Valentine’s Day 2003, Koss was working in his office at Holy Cross when he realized that he could not stand up from his desk. His back had given out. Koss spent the night in the emergency room of a local hospital, where a CAT scan revealed a suspicious growth. Rushed to Massachusetts General Hospital, Koss received a terrifying diagnosis: he had multiple myeloma, an incurable cancer of the blood and bone marrow. Koss’ cancer was so close to his spine that his doctors recommended an immediate round of radiation treatments. With his wife Betsy, daughter Frederica, and many friends, family members, and colleagues by his side, Koss spent the next two weeks at the hospital.

Sadly, Koss was no stranger to cancer. The disease had claimed the lives of his father, who had died a decade earlier, and his sister, who had lost a battle with ovarian cancer at the age of 39. Still, he spent the first week in the hospital in a state of shock. “As I was lying in bed, dealing with my own mortality, I also began thinking more and more about the Columbia, of the seven people who died aboard that mission, and their families. I decided that I wanted to help set the record straight about the purpose of these missions and lay out the risks. And I wanted to do it now.”

While undergoing his first round of radiation, Koss began writing an op-ed piece in his head, a welcome distraction from the discomfort and anxiety of the treatment. He also heard from several Vassar friends and classmates, including Betty Anderson Dworschak ’82, his faithful term-paper editor during their college days. “When I told Betty about my idea for an editorial, she said, ‘Write it! And then send it to me for comments.’ For a moment, it was like we were back at Vassar again.”

Over the next two months, between rounds of painkillers, treatments, and research, Koss wrote his editorial and collaborated with Dworschak on revisions. He submitted it to the New York Times the day before he returned to the hospital to undergo his most aggressive form of treatment—a massive round of chemotherapy followed by a stem-cell transplant.

“I didn’t have any connections to the Times, so I simply sent it using their electronic submission form. I had little expectation that it would be published.” The very next day, as he was lying in his hospital bed, Koss received a message from one of the students in his lab at Holy Cross, saying “someone from the New York Times was trying to get in touch with me.”

The Times wanted Koss’ piece, but asked him to shorten it by half. Exhausted from the chemotherapy, he worked on the article for 15 minutes at a time over the next week, letting the Times editors know that he was in the hospital but not giving any hint as to the severity of his condition. The editorial, “How Science Brought Down the Shuttle,” was published the following Sunday, June 29, 2003.

In it, Koss argued that the vast majority of scientific experiments conducted in orbit, including his own, did not require astronauts and in most cases they could be performed more safely and effectively by remote control from the ground. He urged NASA to come clean with the American public and to stop tying science-based missions with the more romantic notion of astronauts exploring space. “If NASA is not able to convince the public of the importance of science in orbit without astronaut involvement, then so be it,” he wrote. “At least America’s refusal to support science would be honest, would not needlessly endanger human lives, or compromise the integrity of science and scientists.... We need to separate the goal of scientific experimentation from the desire for space exploration. I hope the unfortunate deaths of the Columbia astronauts will sever forever the false link that has been created between the two.” Koss also wrote openly about the heartbreak and personal responsibility he felt for the loss of Columbia’s crew.

Response to Koss’ editorial was immediate and passionate on all sides. He heard from a number of scientists who agreed with his argument and many NASA officials who were angered by his expression of personal culpability. Requests for interviews flooded in, and Koss conducted those he could from his hospital bed. One of Koss’ most surprised audiences was his very own doctors, who had no idea he had been writing at all. “When the piece came out, I really surprised my doctors. It was definitely the first time anyone had written an op-ed piece during a stem-cell transplant! It helped them to deal with me as a person with an outside life and career, not just as a patient who looks terrible and has lost all his hair.”

The editorial also caught the attention of U.S. Representative Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), chairman of the House Science Committee, who asked Koss to come to Washington, DC, to testify before the committee during its hearing on “The Future of Human Space Flight.”

Saying His Piece

Still battling the effects of chemotherapy, Koss went down to Washington for the hearing. One of five expert witnesses, who included the current NASA chief Michael Griffin, Koss described the experience of testifying as “one of the most pleasant of his life.” It certainly got off to a rousing start when a representative asked Koss if it was true that he was a Red Sox fan. Koss answered in the affirmative, prompting chairman Boehlert, a Yankee fan, to bang his gavel in mock indignation and declare, “The gentleman’s time has expired!”

Koss shared with the committee his view that the cost of using astronauts to perform science experiments in space was too high both in terms of dollars spent and lives lost. “My message, though not a popular one, was heard,” he said. “I had no illusion that it was going to win the day, but I felt like I had to do it. I really believe that part of my determination to testify came from the freedom I experienced at Vassar to express my views. I wasn’t afraid that it would ruin my career.”

Aided by Vassar in spirit, Koss was also supported by Vassar in person as Maren Hesla ’82, a campaign consultant who lived in nearby Alexandria, Virginia, sat in the audience. In her email account to several classmates and friends she wrote, “Matt was 30 years younger than the next youngest witness. Everyone around me was assuming that he was some sort of genius prodigy. He was both funny and honest—and he’ll almost certainly never be invited back. (On at least one occasion, he answered, ‘I don’t know.’ You never hear that around here.).... Bottom line is that Matt was incredibly smart and relaxed and funny. He did Vassar proud. Next time he testifies, we should have a party and show up in funny hats.”

Hope, and Concerns, For the Future

Today, Koss continues to advocate for a smaller manned program as well as a commitment to basic science research that can be performed in unmanned spacecrafts. “There are experiments I’ve worked on developing that need flying but have been grounded along with all shuttle activity for more than two years,” he said. “We need to keep science in space so the skill set doesn’t disappear. If NASA stops doing things like basic physics altogether, then the best ideas have no place to go.”

He also has kept his eye on NASA’s Return to Flight program, which began with the somewhat troubled launch of Discovery in July 2005. While the Discovery experienced the same foam debris problems that caused the Columbia accident, the shuttle returned home safely. “With the launch of Discovery, NASA has shown that it will not repeat the proximate mistake that doomed the Columbia,” wrote Koss in a Boston Globe editorial titled “NASA’s Failure of Vision,” published August 2, 2005. “Unfortunately, this scenario also shows that we as a space-faring nation have not learned enough from the Columbia accident.... The great shame with all the hoopla surrounding the ‘return to fight’ and the inherent risk is that much science has already been cancelled in favor of far riskier moon-Mars missions, whose intent and rewards are not sufficiently envisioned or articulated.”

Photo of Matthew Koss '83
Photo of Matthew Koss '83
Koss stresses that while he believes the manned space program at NASA remains out of balance, he understands the human impulse for space exploration. He is not, however, a believer in the near-term future of space tourism, a burgeoning industry led by billionaire entrepreneurs like Richard Branson, who are championing the commercialization of space. “I love the enthusiasm and creativity of organizations like Mars Society, but their ambitions are not realistic. They have many wonderful ideas, but once you analyze the costs, their plans are exposed. I guess my current response is still: build it, prove it, show it. The burden of proof is going to be on those who make the fantastic claims.”

As for his illness, Koss employs a gallows humor to keep his spirits up (“I tell people I never should have pursued a terminal degree”), but knows there may be difficult days ahead. The median life expectancy for those who have multiple myeloma is only three to five years, but Koss is responding well to the stem-cell treatments and visits an oncologist every month to see if the cancer has returned, or if there are any new avenues to pursue in delaying its return. “Since there is no cure for multiple myeloma, my goal is to be as healthy, happy, and productive as I can until the day the cancer returns.

“Until then, I will keep talking about what I think the future of NASA should be—even though it’s become starkly clear that it’s a future that may not include me. But I’m really asking everyone else to do the same, to look at NASA and a future that they won’t be able to participate in either, be it one hundred or even one thousand years from now.”

Sarah O’Brien Mackey ’89 is a freelance writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Matthew Koss
Between Vassar and Holy Cross, Dr. Koss earned his Ph.D. from Tufts University in experimental condensed matter physics. Besides being involved in the publication of over 50 articles, Koss is an active member of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the American Association of Physics Teachers, and Sigma Xi. He also develops and teaches science outreach programs for elementary schools.