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The Rescue That Never Was - Saving Space Shuttle Columbia


Nashley Tisdale

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http://arstechnica.com/science/2014/02/the-audacious-rescue-plan-that-might-have-saved-space-shuttle-columbia/4/

 

Could the Columbia astronauts have been safely retrieved from orbit?

 

During the writing of its report, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) had the same question, so it asked NASA to develop a theoretical repair and rescue plan for Columbia "based on the premise that the wing damage events during launch were recognized early during the mission." The result was an absolutely remarkable set of documents, which appear at the end of the report as Appendix D.13. They carry the low-key title "STS-107 In-Flight Options Assessment," but the scenario they outline would have pushed NASA to its absolute limits as it mounted the most dramatic space mission of all time.

 

NASA planners did have one fortuitous ace in the hole that made the plan possible: while Columbia's STS-107 mission was in progress, Atlantis was already undergoing preparation for flight as STS-114, scheduled for launch on March 1. As Columbia thundered into orbit, the younger shuttle was staged in Orbital Processing Facility 1 (OPF-1) at the Kennedy Space Center. Its three main engines had already been installed, but it didn't yet have a payload or remote manipulator arm in its cargo bay. Two more weeks of refurbishment and prep work remained before it would be wheeled across the space center to the enormous Vehicle Assembly Building and hoisted up for attachment to an external tank and a pair of solid rocket boosters.

 

If you have the time, I highly suggest reading the entire article. It's absolutely fascinating.

 

We all know the sad story of STS-107, the doomed Columbia mission, but this tells the tale of a plan that NASA was tasked to develop in order to theoretically prove that Columbia's crew could have been saved. If you read the article, you will see the undertaking it would have been to perform this task in the limited time frame. I firmly believe if something like this actually happened, it would have been the greatest human achievement in history. But, alas, it wasn't to be.

 

When reading, just put out of your mind that this plan could not have possibly come together in the timeframe necessary. NASA would not have been able to develop this plan from scratch in enough time to save the crew. But, instead, assume that this plan was already in place and this is the explanation of how it would play out.

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After reading it, it's amazing to me that we didn't operate under some kind of fail safe condition like this. Obviously having another ship on some kind of standby is both expensive and still presents it's own set of challenges, but it's actually a question I have wondered ever since I was old enough to understand what all entailed going into space.
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It's all about the risk. All astronauts know they are on a potential on-way trip. But the reward to them is so great, it's worth taking.

 

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had to pray the Lunar Module on Apollo 11 would ignite to get them back off the moon. If it didn't light (and it was never tested on the ground, because it simply couldn't be) their fate would have been to simply sit there until their oxygen supply ran out and suffocate while Michael Collins orbited the moon until it was time for him to re-enter Earth's atmosphere. It takes a VERY special breed to do that job.

 

The so-called Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) used a real time operating system, which enabled astronauts to enter simple commands by typing in pairs of nouns and verbs, to control the spacecraft. It was more basic than the electronics in modern toasters that have computer controlled stop/start/defrost buttons. It had approximately 64Kbyte of memory and operated at 0.043MHz.

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After reading it, it's amazing to me that we didn't operate under some kind of fail safe condition like this. Obviously having another ship on some kind of standby is both expensive and still presents it's own set of challenges, but it's actually a question I have wondered ever since I was old enough to understand what all entailed going into space.

 

Yes, but they didn't know that it was going to be a problem when reentering. And what circumstance other than that, would there be in order for there to be an emergency rescue mission? This article actually got me into looking up the entire story, it really is unbelievable. I also can't believe that they didn't have cameras sharp enough to zoom in with perfect clarity. We take all of this recent audio, video, technology world for granted after such a short time of having it accessible to us. If I can't watch a game in HD, I go nuts. Crazy.

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Yes, but they didn't know that it was going to be a problem when reentering. And what circumstance other than that, would there be in order for there to be an emergency rescue mission? This article actually got me into looking up the entire story, it really is unbelievable. I also can't believe that they didn't have cameras sharp enough to zoom in with perfect clarity. We take all of this recent audio, video, technology world for granted after such a short time of having it accessible to us. If I can't watch a game in HD, I go nuts. Crazy.

 

What's crazier to me, beyond cameras, is that the thing isn't loaded with sensors that would be able to inform NASA of any issues. A car has 800000000 sensors to tell you everything about everything, yet there isn't anything sophisticated enough to be outfitted to a NASA shuttle and survive the heat involved in space travel.

 

As for the idea of having a second shuttle on standby, I wasn't talking about this specifically but just in general. What if a crew is on a space walk at the ISS and something happens with their ship while docked. Idk, I'm sure there are multiple parameters for issues, I just think it's incredible how little it feels we've come since developing the reusable shuttles and the safety protocols associated with them.

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Yes, but they didn't know that it was going to be a problem when reentering. And what circumstance other than that, would there be in order for there to be an emergency rescue mission? This article actually got me into looking up the entire story, it really is unbelievable. I also can't believe that they didn't have cameras sharp enough to zoom in with perfect clarity. We take all of this recent audio, video, technology world for granted after such a short time of having it accessible to us. If I can't watch a game in HD, I go nuts. Crazy.

 

You have to remember, that happened in 2003, camera technology was nowhere near where it is today. Today the cameras can pick up a microbe on a fly's ass from 10 miles up!

 

I just wonder why they didn't pay more attention to what the foam that fell away on liftoff did to damage the ship and do a spacewalk or something.

 

The engineers could not determine if the foam had caused any damage to the shuttle's wing because the picture was blurry and the angle of the shot was bad. They asked the top shuttle managers for outside agency assistance, but the request was denied. After an official report from Boeing and many consultations, the shuttle managers concluded that there was no safety concern due to the foam's impact and the shuttle continued its mission.

 

When the shuttle broke up during reentry, no one could ascertain if it was because of the damaged wing hit by the foam. Other possible causes were pilot mistake and space debris. Investigations continued in the next few weeks. Some molten aluminum debris from the shuttle's wing structure, as well as molten steel debris, had been found. The engineers eliminated the other possibilities and began focusing on the foam from the external tank only.

 

I'm no conspiracy theory wacko, but maybe internally they knew they were screwed and just had to take a chace some miracle would save them.

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It's all about the risk. All astronauts know they are on a potential on-way trip. But the reward to them is so great, it's worth taking.

 

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had to pray the Lunar Module on Apollo 11 would ignite to get them back off the moon. If it didn't light (and it was never tested on the ground, because it simply couldn't be) their fate would have been to simply sit there until their oxygen supply ran out and suffocate while Michael Collins orbited the moon until it was time for him to re-enter Earth's atmosphere. It takes a VERY special breed to do that job.

 

The so-called Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) used a real time operating system, which enabled astronauts to enter simple commands by typing in pairs of nouns and verbs, to control the spacecraft. It was more basic than the electronics in modern toasters that have computer controlled stop/start/defrost buttons. It had approximately 64Kbyte of memory and operated at 0.043MHz.

 

Absolutely. The Apollo moon missions were daunting missions, and had those boosters not started they would have certainly been lft on the moon to die. On top of the fact that they basically went to the moon in machines no thicker than your toaster oven, maybe even thinner, makes the entire idea of the moon missions even that much more brazen.

 

As cool as this idea to rescue sounds and would have been so great to have happened, reading this shows me that it was a little far fetched. Even if they were able to make a space walk (which in itself is an amazingly difficult endeavor), there is probably still no guarantee that the repaired tiles would have held up during the violent reentry.

When they do these repairs on the ground, they are done in a super advanced environment with some of the best tools available. They would have had the tools at their disposal up there, but do such repairs in the vacuum of space is a lot to ask.

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