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NASA Space

The Rescue Plan That Could Have Saved Space Shuttle Columbia 247

Posted by Soulskill
from the if-only dept.
An anonymous reader writes "In February, 2003, space shuttle Columbia was lost upon atmospheric re-entry. Afterward, NASA commissioned an exhaustive investigation to figure out what happened, and how it could be prevented in the future. However, they also figured out exactly what would have been required for a repair and rescue mission using Atlantis. Lee Hutchinson at Ars Technica went through the report and wrote a lengthy article explaining what such a mission would look like. In short: risky and terribly complex — but possible. 'In order to push Atlantis through processing in time, a number of standard checks would have to be abandoned. The expedited OPF processing would get Atlantis into the Vehicle Assembly Building in just six days, and the 24/7 prep work would then shave an additional day off the amount of time it takes to get Atlantis mated to its external tank and boosters. After only four days in the Vehicle Assembly Building, one of the two Crawler-Transporters would haul Atlantis out to Launch Complex 39, where it would stage on either Pad A or Pad B on Flight Day 15—January 30. ... Once on the pad, the final push to launch would begin. There would be no practice countdown for the astronauts chosen to fly the mission, nor would there be extra fuel leak tests. Prior to this launch, the shortest time a shuttle had spent on the launch pad was 14 days; the pad crews closing out Atlantis would have only 11 days to get it ready to fly.'"
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The Rescue Plan That Could Have Saved Space Shuttle Columbia

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  • However.. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by TechyImmigrant (175943) on Wednesday February 26, 2014 @06:43PM (#46351593) Journal

    However, this presupposes that you knew about the problem before trying to land.

    • Re:However.. (Score:5, Informative)

      by CohibaVancouver (864662) on Wednesday February 26, 2014 @06:51PM (#46351657)
      From TFA:

      The foam strike was not observed live. Only after the shuttle was orbiting Earth did NASA's launch imagery review reveal that the wing had been hit. Foam strikes during launch were not uncommon events, and shuttle program managers elected not to take on-orbit images of Columbia to visually assess any potential damage. Instead, NASA's Debris Assessment Team mathematically modeled the foam strike but could not reach any definitive conclusions about the state of the shuttle's wing.

      The mission continued.
      • by Cryacin (657549) on Wednesday February 26, 2014 @07:23PM (#46352069)
        Yes, but this was their contingency plan portfolio at the time:

        1. Spend 12 weeks to prep Atlantis at which time the larger astronauts would have begun eating the smallar astronauts. (Proven in animal testing)
        2. Request $5b in DARPA funding to develop and deploy a space elevator to retrieve astronauts in 5 years. (Plus project delays, see problem with contingency #1)
        3. Bruce Willis, a long rope, and a toothpick.
        4. Buy Uncle Murphy a case of Guinness, pray to several gods, and try to land the sucker anyway. (AKA: The ostrich risk assessment technique).
      • by Nimey (114278)

        OP couldn't have gotten first post if he'd RTFA'd.

    • by OzPeter (195038)

      However, this presupposes that you knew about the problem before trying to land.

      They knew there was a foam strike, they just chose not to actually look at it and instead rely on models to assess the damage. From TFA

      The foam strike was not observed live. Only after the shuttle was orbiting Earth did NASA's launch imagery review reveal that the wing had been hit. Foam strikes during launch were not uncommon events, and shuttle program managers elected not to take on-orbit images of Columbia to visually assess any potential damage. Instead, NASA's Debris Assessment Team mathematically modeled the foam strike but could not reach any definitive conclusions about the state of the shuttle's wing. The mission continued.

      I'd love to know what the risk analysis of that decision looked like. And boy I would have loved to have seen what Richard Feynman would have make of it, given the new one he ripped for NASA over challenger. [nasa.gov]

      • Re:However.. (Score:5, Insightful)

        by ceoyoyo (59147) on Wednesday February 26, 2014 @07:52PM (#46352407)

        Mathematical modelling team: "We can't be 100% sure, but the models don't look good. Recommend taking a look for damage."

        Mission director: "And if we see damage what then?"

        Engineering team: "Um."

        • Mission director: "And if we see damage what then?"

          "We could tell the crew so they could get on the horn and say goodbye to their loved ones one last time..."

          • by ceoyoyo (59147)

            I don't think the damage to the shuttle was an obvious death sentence, even if they had inspected it (from the ground, likely). Do you call your mom and tell her goodbye every time you get in your car? The risk was undoubtedly higher than that, but so was the risk of the entire flight. Astronauts' loved ones know it's risky and I bet both sides know the goodbyes before any mission might be the last one. Regular reentries are dangerous too. Every one of those astronauts probably did call up mom/wife/kid

          • Re:However.. (Score:4, Insightful)

            by Cramer (69040) on Wednesday February 26, 2014 @11:09PM (#46353933) Homepage

            Welcome to the never ending lawsuits. If NASA knew about it and didn't risk a bunch of lives to attempt a rescue, you bet your ass there would be a thousand lawsuits filed within days. And the only humans to ever go into space after that would be from communist nations where they cannot be sued.

        • by segedunum (883035)
          In a nutshell you've described the problem here. Making assumptions that nothing can be done will not make the problem go away and neither will deliberately not looking at it.
        • by rwa2 (4391) *

          Seems like they could have launched some kind of lifeboat or three up to dock with them within 30 days.
          How long would it have taken the Russians to prep a Proton rocket to deliver unmanned Soyuz capsules (and an airlock adapter) to them?

          Eh, it would have looked bad to ask for help from the Russians. Nevermind.

          http://www.nasaspaceflight.com... [nasaspaceflight.com]
          http://historicspacecraft.com/... [historicspacecraft.com]

          • Looked bad? Hell, it would have looked great, all it would've taken is a good PR department.

            First, remember that only 3 years earlier the Russian sub Kursk sunk and everyone on board died because they didn't want to accept help from foreign parties. This would have been a great chance to show everyone that the US care more about their people than about their pride, other than those Russkies who got a lot of flak internationally for their refusal of aid. The world would have taken it as a visible, very tangi

        • Well, maybe a change in reentry could have increased their chances?

          I'm no expert in space travel, but I know at least that much that there is more than one way to skin the cat, or to reenter the atmosphere. Usually, the goal is to minimize the stress on crew and craft, but if they had seen a problem, maybe a change in reentry that results in, say, very high g stress would have been very uncomfortable, maybe even to some degree dangerous, to the crew, but would have increased the chance that the craft can su

          • by AK Marc (707885)
            Yes, a shallower angle and higher entry speed would have resulted in a more "gentle" descent, but the lower temperatures and pressures would have been sustained for longer, so no evidence that a change in reentry would have had any effect in their survival. They don't carry enough fuel to re-enter slow enough to survive a heat shield failure.
        • Mission director: "And if we see damage what then?"

          Engineering team: "Um."

          When the first shuttle was launched, there was a big uproar about the fragility of the tiles, so much so that they declassified a high power space surveillance telescope in Hawaii to show the public photos of the shuttle's underbelly. I seem to recall that the shuttle crew had a repair device, which looked like a fat caulking gun with an upholstery brush attached to it, which would dispense an ablative gel into the hole left by a missing tile. I can't find any pictures of it though.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      Not to mention, this sounds like the kind of plan that could easily result in the loss of two crews, instead of one.
      • by geekoid (135745)

        And? Frankly it's worth the risk.

        But someone of us would run under fire to pull an injured person to safety, and then there are people like you.

        Fortunately Cowards don't become astronauts.

        • by mosb1000 (710161)

          Fortunately Cowards don't become astronauts.

          Unfortunately, they do become administrators. . .

          • by roc97007 (608802)

            Fortunately Cowards don't become astronauts.

            Unfortunately, they do become administrators. . .

            Sad. True.

        • by ganjadude (952775)
          True, they become congressmen and presidents
    • ...of only a few days, then this would be quite useful. You could get Denzel Washington in onthe project somehow.
    • by segedunum (883035)

      However, this presupposes that you knew about the problem before trying to land.

      There was a flurry of internal e-mails at NASA that showed they were very aware of the problem, and that they weren't going to do anything about it.

  • by Maxo-Texas (864189) on Wednesday February 26, 2014 @06:52PM (#46351679)

    Because you were cutting corners?

    What then?

    • Well, the first person to make a tasteless remark about the relative merits of doubling down and folding to the assembled multitudes at mission control would probably get his face punched...
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by geekoid (135745)

      If not when, and so what? Seriously, its worth the risk to try and save people.

      You're question could be asked by anyone wanting to rescue anyone anywhere.

      • If not when, and so what? Seriously, its worth the risk to try and save people.

        Not necessarily. As TFA noted, a number of scenarios were considered. It wasn't at all clear than they would have worked at all and there was an excellent chance that the Atlantis AND the crew would have been lost. So making hard headed cost benefit analysis calculations really does work in the real world.

        Otherwise your car would go 5 mph and no one, but no one would ever fly in a plane.

      • by Aaden42 (198257) on Wednesday February 26, 2014 @07:35PM (#46352209) Homepage

        If you knew with complete assurance that the first crew would be lost if they attempted to land without repair, then it would likely be worth the risk to a second crew to mount a rescue.

        If on the other hand, there’s only some chance that the first crew would be lost attempting to land, then working that risk into the risk to the second crew is reasonable. IE if there’s a 10% chance that there might have been trouble landing (and it sounds like the foam strikes leading up to Columbia’s trouble were in fact common, so could be considered low-risk) then it’s not unreasonable to decide that the risk of the second crew is an unreasonable risk. Consider also that the risk to this second crew for an accelerated launch process would likely have been FAR greater than a “normal” shuttle launch (assuming it can be said there’s anything “normal” about strapping a bomb to your ass and fleeing the planet...)

        If there’s a very high chance of failure of the original crew’s landing, then the additional risk might be worth it. If not, then you really are doubling down and risking losing two crews. It’s entirely plausible that due to the corners cut for an accelerated launch Atlantis could have exploded during launch, leaving Columbia to still take their chances landing with a damaged wing.

        Armchair quarterbacking is easy. Saying they should have risked a second crew *now*, knowing that it’s an impossibility and that your assertion that the risk is reasonable will never be tested is also easy. Being left to make that call in the moment, knowing that you could be sending a second shuttle crew to their deaths trying to help another crew that might not even need the help the first place. Little bit harder to live with that one...

        The loss of the Columbia crew is a tragedy, but looking back based on this report, it doesn’t seem like the way it was handled was unreasonable.

        • by AK Marc (707885)
          The best way of judging the risk is to ask the crew for the rescue mission if they would be willing to risk their lives for a 10% chance of the shuttle blowing up on reentry. The only ones against doing something about it were the managers.
  • I wonder what other options they investigated... for instance, would it have been feasible to do a spacewalk and relocate foam to critical areas? I know this stuff is way more complicated than any simplistic suggestions from the internet, but NASA pulled hell and high water to bring Apollo 13 home safely. Imminent emergencies have a way bringing out the greatness in an otherwise bureaucratic organization.
    • by WetCat (558132)

      Also, what options about using MKS were investigated? Was it possible to host all austronauts there after life support on Columbia has been exhausted, and then gradually evacuate via Sojuz and/or Atlantis?

      • by sconeu (64226)

        By MKS, I assume you mean ISS. And the answer is no. They were in radically different orbits, and Columbia did not have the delta-V to match.

      • Ah, the fine folks who don't read TFA. No, you could not have moved the Columbia to the ISS - it would have taken approximately twice as much fuel as the shuttle carried to pull than maneuver off.

    • by fructose (948996)
      The tiles on the leading edge of the wing aren't foam, they are a ceramic material and each tile is designed for a specific location on the wing. Cover the hole up? Not likely with the materials they had. It's not like they have extra leading edge tiles laying around anyway. The only real option would be to get them on another shuttle since the ISS was not accessible.
    • Yep, they investigated lots of options. They're all in TFA (the CAIB, not just the Ars article but you might start there).

      No, you can't 'relocate the foam'. The damaged part was a carbon-fibre leading edge element, not foam. NASA subsequently developed a patch for this sort of damage but obviously stuff like this takes time.

      And to everyone who thinks that the Columbia accident and Apollo 13 are somehow equivalent consider this - in Apollo 13 "all" they had to do was to stay alive until they could loop th

      • by ganjadude (952775)
        To be fair concerning apollo 13 grown crew had no idea if the heat shield was damaged or not, and intentionally kept it from the crew as to not put them inder any more stress. At the time they thoight it was 50 50 that.the craft would burn up on reentry
    • by Burdell (228580)

      There are risks in spaceflight that just can't really be overcome, except in hindsight. If what happened to Apollo 13 had happened to Apollo 8, the result would have been very different. Apollo 8 had no LM that could have been used as a "lifeboat", and it is unlikely that there would have been any other way to keep the astronauts alive. There's a good chance the Apollo program would have ended if NASA had two consecutive crews killed.

      However, one thing from Apollo 8 helped Apollo 13: on Apollo 8, Jim Lov

  • by Minwee (522556) <dcr@neverwhen.org> on Wednesday February 26, 2014 @07:03PM (#46351783) Homepage

    "Could" is a pretty strong word. As Lee goes into some depth on exactly how much of a record breaking effort it would have taken just to get Atlantis off the ground in time to save Columbia, and how many corners would have to be not only cut but removed with a chainsaw, it would be more accurate to say that the plan proposed by the CAIB shows that even if the Launch Director had pointed to Columbia as it was launching and said "Hey, there are some missing tiles there. We need to get Atlantis ready right now", they still wouldn't have been able to do it.

    The thing to take away from this is not that NASA could have saved Columbia but didn't, but that they changed the plan for every other shuttle launch so that they would always have a second launch vehicle on standby. It's about learning from mistakes, not making them worse.

    • by geekoid (135745)

      " they still wouldn't have been able to do it."
      this actual report says otherwise.

      But hey it's hard and risky, lets just not do it.

      I remember people like you whining about dangers of Apollo and 'what if'. Screw you.

      • by n7ytd (230708)

        A lot of Monday morning quarterbacks on this one. Yes, they might have been able to cut lots of corners and gotten Atlantis up, at a significant risk to the Atlantis crew. What then? Do we have the Columbia crew spacewalk over to Atlantis with instructions for the last astronaut to turn off the lights? Aim Columbia at the ocean and hope for the best?

        If they had had such a plan in place and executed it, and some other loss of life had happened because of the increased risk, everyone likely would have bee

  • ...if you encapsulate the word "reusable" in quotes. and this is a good illustration of that fact.

    At $2bn per flight and a stack of signatures a mile high for each one, they required significant dissasembly and inspection in-between flights. The shuttle was never designed as a production vehicle - it was a test article hastily pressed into production. To keep a "hot standby" for rescue missions would thus be quite costly.

    The future is ultimately with 100% reusable "gas and go" vehicles with automotive-

    • by geekoid (135745)

      " would thus be quite costly."
      So?

      "The future is ultimately with 100% reusable "gas and go" vehicles with automotive-like reliability,"
      You really have no clue about space flight do you?

      We would need at least 2 major break through to make spaceships that don't nee to go throug riborious inspection after every flight:
      1) A completely new type of complete ship shielding
      2) Low g and low vibration lift off.

      Even commercial aircraft get an inspection.

      • by ceoyoyo (59147)

        PRIVATE aircraft get a very expensive inspection annually. I inspect my hang glider a hell of a lot more carefully than I inspect my car before every flight.

  • The report deals with a tragedy 11 years ago (Feb 2003), and how it could've been handled 11 years ago. Fast forward to February 2014. Let's use today's tech. We've got SpaceX and other commercial entities capable of launching supplies into orbit and rendezvouing with with ISS or a shuttle.

    If any similar missions are undertaken in future, pay SpaceX/whomever, to have a launch vehicle with emergency supplies on standby. In a worst case, send up enough oxygen/water/rations/etc to allow the orbiting shuttle cr

    • by es330td (964170)

      We've got SpaceX and other commercial entities capable of launching supplies into orbit and rendezvouing with with ISS or a shuttle.

      I am not an aerospace engineer or astrophysicist, but I have to ask how "capable" SpaceX is of this mission you propose. SpaceX won the X Prize by getting to 112 km twice. The shuttle orbited at 304 km and the ISS at 370km. The marginal cost of taking each additional kg to space is significant. To get any amount of any moderate mass more than twice as high above the Earth has got to have a massive energy budget. I realize SpaceX gets to the edge of space, but Shuttle type altitudes are higher above where

  • A repair mission was pretty much impossible. A rescue mission might have been, but as others will be sure to point out this would have been risky and didn't stand a very good chance of success. But it was ONLY possible had they known for sure the damage was terminal and had started the rescue mission right after the launch. Given they didn't really know the extent of the damage, trying a reentry was pretty much the only option. I don't begrudge the mission controllers for going though with it.

    Astronauts k

  • This kind of thing really makes me angry, because the Columbia crew *did not have to die*

    I absolutely hate the triumph of spreadsheet analysis over human intuition and experience.

    NOTE: I'm not saying quantitative analysis, project management, risk analysis, etc isn't important...trolls...for fucks sake...I'm acknowledging that all of it is valuable and should be done.

    That being said, humans need to be dealt back into the NASA decision process.

    Two reasons:

    1. Humans can comprehend complexity that we cannot pr

    • This is exactly wrong. Putting more "human" decision makers in place is exactly what lead to the Challenger disaster and Columbia disasters. Because the "feels" of public relations was more important than the "mere numbers" of astronaut safety.

      • This is exactly wrong. Putting more "human" decision makers in place is exactly what lead to the Challenger disaster and Columbia disasters.

        Right. Certain people claimed that they "felt" that the weather was too cold on the day of the Challenger explosion. Others "felt" that the risk was one in a million. Who's right? If you scrub the launch whenever one of the thousands of NASA technicians feels nervous you'll never do anything. Only by quantifying the risk can you work out what to do, and it took Feynamn to demonstrate that.

        • Certain people claimed that they "felt" that the weather was too cold on the day of the Challenger explosion.

          You're putting words in my mouth and misrepresenting my point.

          I took *great pains* to point out that *I value all quantifiable data greatly*...damn...

          Also, you make it out like my side is saying, "Oh if you're trick knee twinges then 'go for it dude'!" or some kind of ridiculous crap.

          That's absolutely not what I said at all....I said humans can comprehend complexity that they **cannot program a machi

        • by dryeo (100693)

          The engineers who designed the rubber seals said that they were not designed for freezing temps, and to wait for it to warm up. No feel about it, the temperature was out of the design limit and the rubber was going to be brittle. Management wanted a launch that day and overrode the engineers.

    • by ceoyoyo (59147)

      That's stupid. Humans, based on as much quantitative analysis as they could get their hands on, decided not to try any crazy rescue schemes on the chance that Columbia might not make it. People responsible for other people's lives make decisions based on the very best information they can get, not on a gut feeling and a yee haw.

    • by gnu-sucks (561404)

      I think you have to go with both. As others have pointed out, humans can be awfully wrong too.

      Having said this, there is no way, at all, that, if we had understood the gravity of the situation we would have done nothing. That's not the American or NASA spirit. Take John Glenn's first flight, where there was an indication that the heat shield and landing bag had been released in-orbit. Can you imagine being in that small capsule knowing that you might be about to burn up on re-entry? The incredible engineers

  • "The foam strike was not observed live. Only after the shuttle was orbiting Earth did NASA's launch imagery review reveal that the wing had been hit. Foam strikes during launch were not uncommon events, and shuttle program managers elected not to take on-orbit images of Columbia to visually assess any potential damage. Instead, NASA's Debris Assessment Team [arstechnica.com] mathematically modeled the foam strike but could not reach any definitive conclusions about the state of the shuttle's wing. The mission continued"

    NA
  • If the issue is the CO2 canisters, or even other supplies like liquid oxygen, what about launching supplies? Could the Russians have launched faster, perhaps with a vehicle already on the pad? Could we have used a unmanned rocket that would normally launch a satellite or similar to launch a payload of supplies?

    From my read of the timeline even buying just a week or two might have changed the "launch a backup shuttle" plan from amazingly risky to just somewhat risky. I'm not trying to suggest getting supp

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