Gravity Probe B

Nobel laureate Sheldon Glashow called the gravity experiment a "must." Princeton mathematics professor Demetrios Christodoulou termed it "a fundamental physics experiment of the utmost significance." At the University of Chicago's Enrico Fermi Institute, astrophysicist S. Chandrasekhar said the experiment is of "central significance not only to the general theory of relativity but to a wide range of astrophysical phenomena."

Simply to definitively prove that Einstein is correct would be more than enough to justify the whole project in NASA's eyes.

"It would really change our perception of the universe," says NASA Gravity Probe B program manager Frank Giovane from Washington, D.C. "Everyone realizes it is of earth-shattering importance that we truly validate Einstein's theory."

In many ways, the Gravity Probe B project is unlike anything NASA - which has no division devoted to fundamental physics - has ever attempted. Unlike many astrophysics and astronomy satellites, designed as instruments of open-ended exploration, the relativity mission is designed to answer a single yes or no question. And it aims to validate a theory many scientists today already consider well proven.

It also is unique in another way: A university, not the space agency, has taken the prime role in a satellite mission. The project is managed directly by Stanford, with NASA retaining largely an oversight responsibility. Under contract to the university, Lockheed Martin Missiles and Space Co. is building the spacecraft and some of the experimental systems.

"For the most part, Stanford is in control of its scientific destiny," says Eugene W. Urban, a project scientist who is chief of the physics and astronomy division in the space sciences laboratory at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. "It is unusual," he adds.

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