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Space United States

NASA Prepares for Space Rescues 249

wallstreetprodigy23 copies and pastes "Space shuttle commander Steve Lindsey is preparing for a mission he hopes will never launch: the rescue of other astronauts in orbit. If a crisis arises during shuttle Discovery's planned return to flight in May, Lindsey and a crew of three could be called upon to lift off aboard sister ship Atlantis on an emergency mission that would be the first in the history of human space exploration. Rescue flights were hotly debated at NASA after shuttle Columbia broke up in the skies above Texas two years ago this Tuesday. Questions arose about whether Columbia's seven astronauts could have been saved. Because of the accident, NASA will have a backup shuttle and rescue crew ready for at least the next two flights in case another ship suffers damage similar to what brought down Columbia."
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NASA Prepares for Space Rescues

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  • Great timing. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Seumas ( 6865 ) on Sunday January 30, 2005 @06:07PM (#11523036)
    I'm not a rocket scientist, so let me make sure I have this right:

    1) Build space station.
    2) Send astronauts to space station.
    3) A few years later, start brainstorming a rescue plan.
  • Next Two? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by vbdrummer0 ( 736163 ) on Sunday January 30, 2005 @06:13PM (#11523086)
    Woudn't it make more sense (humanly and logically, not necessarily financially) to always have a backup shuttle ready? Sure as hell, there won't be a screwup so soon after restarting flights; NASA won't allow anything to get off the ground this early with any problems at all; it would look bad for PR. But later, like in a few years, they'll have slacked up, and something could go wrong. Hopefully, they'll have a backup flight ready to go if/when that happens.
  • by popo ( 107611 ) on Sunday January 30, 2005 @06:13PM (#11523087) Homepage

    Look at the size of the original orbital capsules. Excape capsules could be created that take up 1/2 the space, could survive re-entry, and easily fit within the cargo area. Wouldn't that be much cheaper than a sister shuttle at the ready?
  • Hotly debated? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by game kid ( 805301 ) on Sunday January 30, 2005 @06:16PM (#11523109) Homepage
    Rescue flights were hotly debated at NASA after shuttle Columbia broke up in the skies above Texas two years ago this Tuesday. Questions arose about whether Columbia's seven astronauts could have been saved.

    No, not unless rescuers were launched by a full-speed ICBM the very instant the shuttle broke up. Unless Houston can immediately get news of a wing break, this is a non-starter. Space travel is an inherently dangerous business--going into harsh atmospheres (if any atmosphere at all), lack of gravity and air pressure to keep you in shape, old and tough-to-maintain equipment in space shuttles, etc; I'm shocked there's any debate.

    If I was an astronaut I'd be thinking about my two choices during any mission:

    1. I return alive after a perfect launch and mission.
    2. I'm fucked.
  • by strelitsa ( 724743 ) * on Sunday January 30, 2005 @06:18PM (#11523120) Journal
    Isn't this a lot like retrofitting a rusted, worn-out '89 Ford Escort with front and side airbags, chrome wheels, and Corinthian leather seat covers? Pimp My Ride is fine for MTV but should not be practiced as US space policy.

    The Shuttle has had its day. Stop sinking so many dollars into this antiquated, fragile, expensive money pit and design and build a space transportation system that belongs to this century, not the last.

  • Twice the Problem (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Bios_Hakr ( 68586 ) <[xptical] [at] []> on Sunday January 30, 2005 @06:18PM (#11523123)
    So, let me get this right. If, by some chance, the horribly overcomplicated shuttle breaks in orbit, we'll launch another horribly overcomplicated shuttle that *probably* has the same design flawas the first?

    This is a perfect example of people trying to solve a problem that does not exist.

    Since its introduction, two shuttles have been lost. That's about 15 years of operation per accident. I'd take thoes odds any day. But one fucking shuttle blows up because of a freak accident and then we have to spend millions of dollars to ensure the sound-byte-informed public that it won't happen agian.

    It's just like that fucking terrorism thingy. We send billions on crap while more USians died on the roads in Sep 2001 ever died in terrorist attacks.

    Pull your fucking heads out and spend the money where you can actually see some return.
  • by thewldisntenuff ( 778302 ) on Sunday January 30, 2005 @06:22PM (#11523155) Homepage
    Than just sending up a rescue ship? I mean, lets say at worse theres some catastrophic disaster that causes Ship A to be a total loss. How does Ship B ferry the rest home? Are the shuttles built and designed to hold and land with two crews? You create the potential for either overweight shuttles on re-entry, or you could cause loss of human life if they get bumped around enough on landing/re-entry. An okay idea, but I think wed be better off with solutions that either involve-

    A- An escape module
    B- A way to repair the shuttle while in space

  • But... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by MavEtJu ( 241979 ) <slashdot.mavetju@org> on Sunday January 30, 2005 @06:23PM (#11523163) Homepage
    But who is going to rescue the people on the rescue-mission?
  • Re:But... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by ragnarok ( 6947 ) on Sunday January 30, 2005 @06:27PM (#11523208)
    The Russians.
  • by drgath159 ( 821707 ) on Sunday January 30, 2005 @06:28PM (#11523209)
    Bearing this in mind, what's the point in having a rescue shuttle ready for the next two flights only?

    While I see your point and think this is pretty dumb to waste all this money on rescue missions that will never fly, it's needed. Why? What if the same thing happens again in the next few missions? NASA is completely fucked and would be getting a fraction of the money they get now. It would be a long time before they recovered. If something else went wrong, and two consecutive missions saw the death of astronauts, or two out of three, same thing, NASA is fucked.

    This is nothing more than simply giving people a sense of security. Not really the astronauts themselves as I'm sure they are confident nothing will happen, but more for the rest of the country.

    NASA can't just say, "it was a freak accident that wasn't our fault, it's not going to happen again so we don't really need to do anything." If they don't have these rescue missions planned, that's what they'll be saying.
  • by HBI ( 604924 ) on Sunday January 30, 2005 @06:28PM (#11523212) Journal
    The whole thing was an overengineered government boondoggle. It didn't make sense then, and doesn't make sense now, while looking at it logically.

    The motivations of the various parties are clear enough.

    -NASA was politicking, they didn't want to have a situation like Apollo where the last few flights were eliminated because of changing conditions and or national boredom. A reusable craft almost demands use. They also wanted to create a consistent work environment rather than running a constant R&D shop. Government employees are not good at R&D, in general. Most R&D establishments in the military, for instance, morph into bureaucratic wastes of money over time due to the fact that government oversight doesn't lend itself to dynamic activity. If the unique, dynamic overseers of the project, those exceptional people who have drive and ambition within government, leave their posts - the project stagnates. NASA is no exception.

    -The pilots wanted something aircraft-like to fly, damn the fact that it's not a useful shape for a spacecraft. That was the design spec, and safety was compromised to meet it.

    -The politicians were throwing a bone to NASA and appropriated the funds based on the successful lunar missions. Oversight on this was near-nil, except for the dollar figure which was chopped in half, exacerbating the problem.

    So they seized on an Air Force requirement regarding the capability to return payload from orbit, which ultimately has been used very infrequently, and used that as a justification to achieve all their other disparate goals.

    They promised all kinds of capabilities such as quick turnaround which are bogus in reality. They promised cheaper per-flight costs. They promised greater safety. A lot was promised that never materialized.

    Note that none of the real justifications for a reusable, aircraft shaped spacecraft had anything to do with science, advancing human exploration, or efficiency. Pretty much tells the whole story, no?
  • Re:Hotly debated? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by nuclear305 ( 674185 ) * on Sunday January 30, 2005 @06:31PM (#11523243)
    "No, not unless rescuers were launched by a full-speed ICBM the very instant the shuttle broke up. Unless Houston can immediately get news of a wing break, this is a non-starter."

    You entirely missed the point. The question raised wasn't "Could the Columbia crew have been saved WHILE it broke up?"

    Rather, it was "Could we have realized the problem while in orbit and kept the shuttle in orbit long enough to rescue the crew in some way?"

    It's unlikely the crew could have been saved even if the severity of the problem had been realized since it would have taken days if not weeks to prep another shuttle.

    This is why they're going to prep another shuttle for possible rescue--so that if something goes wrong and the crew has to remain in orbit, they can launch a rescue within a reasonable amount of time.
  • by Tackhead ( 54550 ) on Sunday January 30, 2005 @06:32PM (#11523247)
    It took a hundred flights for the Columbia failure mode to occur. There has been no other flight where an in-flight emergency occured such that rescue might be considered.
    >Bearing this in mind, what's the point in having a rescue shuttle ready for the next two flights only?

    The point is - like all Generals more concerned with keeping their stars than the welfare of the troops under their command - to fight the last war.

    To understand NASA, you need to stop thinking like and engineer and start thinking like a bureaucrat or politician.

    I advise reading the last Slashdot thread on "Political Software Development" while under the influence of large quantities of alcohol. (And if you're a NASA administrator and something goes wrong on your watch, re-read the thread while switching to Valium.)

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 30, 2005 @06:38PM (#11523287)
    interesting points, but:

    a) the chances that two shuttle would fail in a row is exceedingly small;

    b) the brownie points of successfully doing the first in space rescue would be nice to have (damn shame nasa's management needs try #2 to get this idea through their heads);

    c) shuttle launches are not really very much like terrorism.

  • by HeghmoH ( 13204 ) on Sunday January 30, 2005 @06:48PM (#11523360) Homepage Journal
    They are doing these things also. Delaying the launch has always been there, since it's often necessary due to weather and equipment failure. (Not delaying the launch when it should and could have been delayed is why Challenger blew up.) Delaying the return is now an option as well. Presumably they will be given extra supplies, and all shuttle flights will be put into an orbit that can reach the ISS, so the worst case is that they have to hang out there until the problem is fixed or they're rescued. I believe they have equipment and procedures in place for an inspection as well. The rescue mission is on top of that.

    The thing is, a shuttle mission involves an incredible amount of preparation. People have theorized that if everybody at NASA had realized that Columbia was in trouble as soon as it was launched, and they had rushed Atlantis (the next shuttle in line to launch) through prep for a rescue mission, they might have maybe possibly been able to get there before everybody died of starvation or lack of oxygen or whatever would have killed them first. If a rescue mission is going to be an option, then it needs to be prepared before the main mission is launched, simply because it takes so damned long to get a shuttle into orbit.
  • by BeerCat ( 685972 ) on Sunday January 30, 2005 @06:51PM (#11523381) Homepage
    Is this reliance on a back-up plan not just another example of a lot of Western society becoming increasingly risk-averse?

    During an age of exploration, deaths were treated as a hazard of the job - Amelia Earheart's disappearance did not stop the aviation industry from developing. If the same thing happened today, there would be public outcry about how to make {fill in transportation mode} "safer" (= find someone to blame when things go wrong)

    Keeping with the aviation parallels, Lindbergh would probably not have been allowed to take off today - single engine, no radio, no forward visibility and so on - and yet he is (rightly) credited with pulling off an amazing feat*, rather than "doing something foolhardy and dangerous"

    * being picky, the amazing part was landing at his chosen destination (Paris), rather than flying non-stop across the Atlantic, as that had already been done back in 1919 by Alcock & Brown []. Or that he did it solo.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 30, 2005 @07:00PM (#11523455)
    Gee, could that be why GP said "foam hit the wing" and that they would inspect in the future?

  • by YrWrstNtmr ( 564987 ) on Sunday January 30, 2005 @07:01PM (#11523464)
    The first couple of flights are merely test flights. Much as the original ones were.

    all for less than the price of a months war in Iraq

    How much is a vote worth?

  • by Ellis D. Tripp ( 755736 ) on Sunday January 30, 2005 @07:01PM (#11523468) Homepage
    If you smacked the rabbit with a suitcase-sized piece of the foam at ~700 MPH you sure as hell could....
  • by tftp ( 111690 ) on Sunday January 30, 2005 @07:05PM (#11523495) Homepage
    You are right, actually. The foam virtually stands still in the atmosphere... but the Shuttle rams it at 700 mph (since it has an engine.) The end result is the same.
  • by Migraineman ( 632203 ) on Sunday January 30, 2005 @07:48PM (#11523845)
    Have a look at the orbital mechanics - you can raise or lower your orbit by changing your speed a little. That's a mostly-scalar operation. You go up and down, but stay in the same orbital plane (please forgive the obvious simplification.) Now think of your orbital path in terms of the velocity vector. Rotating your orbital plane 90-degrees, for example, requires that you reduce your vector velocity in one axis to zero, while raising the vector velocity in the perpendicular axis to the original amount. So, how much energy did it take to get your original vector velocity? That's right, the whole launch amount. So to turn 90 degrees, you'll need two complete launches worth of fuel and expendibles. That's oversimplified too, because you need to haul that two-launches-worth of booster and fuel up with you in the initial launch. The Rocket Equaiton [] makes that scenario prohibitive.

    Similarly, hauling the rescue capsule around on every frickin' launch has similar implications. It's tremendously wasteful to haul extra weight around "just in case."

    I'd propose a "tow truck" kind of solution. To pose an analogy, how often do you use the spare tire in your car? Maybe never? (Automakers won't sell a spare-less car mostly due to negative market perception.) If you don't have a spare tire, what will you do? You'll get on the cell phone and call a tow truck. (I realize you can't just pull over to the curb in space, but bear with me.) The cell phone and tow truck represent elements of a repair (i.e. rescue) infrastructure we have in place. The better the infrastructure, the less you need to haul around the materials to be self-sufficient. I'd rather see a Delta 4 Heavy (or equivalent) equipped with a Crew Extraction Vehicle (CEV.) Yep, it's a capsule that fits a crew of N in horrible discomfort just long enough to return them to earth. I'm thinking extreme Spam-in-a-Can. They wedge inside however they must. There will be rudimentary water and food aboard - think a couple of bottles of Aquafina and some granola bars. They soil their undergarments, if necessary. A shower will be waiting for them when they return. Feces washes off.

    The "infrastructure" part involves doing all the pre-flight coordination with the manned mission, and would require that the tow truck could be prepped and launched within 2 days or so of declaration of an emergency. Since it's on the ground, the CEV only has one orbital insertion to deal with. It'd need to mate up with the manned mission, but that's part of the infrastructure too.

    Since the CEV is unmanned on launch, it can be configured to use solid boosters. That's going to mitigate liquid-fuel handling issues. It also mitigates flight profile problems - high G-loading tends to do bad things to ugly-bags-of-mostly-water. But the meatbags don't board the CEV until it's already on-orbit, so you only have the human-friendly (re)-entry profile to deal with, right?

    The Crew Return Vehicle (not to be confuced with my CEV, above) is a boondoggle. Passengers are seated in relative comfort. They get all sorts of space to move around. The CRV even has wings and a pilot. And it's supposed to be reusable. What a bunch of crap. My CEV, on the other hand, is horribly cramped and has exactly one job to do - return the crew to earth safely. Once. Period.

    In writing this, I'm thinking that "tow truck" is the wrong term. The CEV is more of a taxi. We abandon the original damaged spacecraft.
  • by i41Overlord ( 829913 ) on Sunday January 30, 2005 @07:51PM (#11523861)
    Exactly where do you draw the line when it comes to the cost of saving a handful of high-profile people? (Astronauts.)

    Are 7 so-so scientists really worth the tens of millions of dollars needed to launch a rescue mission?

    Boy am I glad that you're not in charge of people's lives.
  • by grozzie2 ( 698656 ) on Sunday January 30, 2005 @09:07PM (#11524471)
    you cannot use the words 'gentle' and 're-entry' in the same sentence, except in a diametrically opposed context. There is NOTHING gentle about a re-entry from orbit into the atmosphere. It's simple physics, the vehicle descends, comes in contact with the atmosphere, producing drag. Drag slows it, causing it to descend farther, causing an increase in drag, and this becomes a 'self feeding' situation, the resultant forces from which are huge.

    Doesn't matter how you twist it, re-entry is going to be exposed to a minimum force level of 4 to 6 g. doesn't matter if its a Soyuz or a Shuttle. An apollo capsule would be up around 9 (similar to a soyuz operating in failsafe mode on a pure ballistic trajectory). If payload surviveability is your point of measurement, what difference does a soft landing make, all that really matters is that landing impact is less than the maximum aerodynamic forces during the descent. That is basically the parameter on which they designed the parachute sizes for a Soyuz.

    Then, when we do the reality check, if you haven't kept up with the news, Columbia burned up on re-entry. One of the recommendations after that, was to reduce orbiter mass for re-entry. There wont be any more big payloads coming back from space aboard the shuttle.

  • by Dun Malg ( 230075 ) on Sunday January 30, 2005 @09:59PM (#11524845) Homepage
    Fucking wankers on 9/11 used boxcutters (no evidence to that actually but that's a different rant). Now whenever I go to the airport, even my fingernail clippers are suspect. WHAT IS TSA THINKING?

    I think this one analogy is out of place here. The only reason something as stupid as a box cutter was effective on 9/11 was that, for all 30-odd years of hijacking history, hijackings were without excecption committed by people intent on using the living passengers as bargaining chips. People knew that the odds were that they'd survive, as at worst hijackers killed perhaps two or three passengers, tops, and then usually only when they're off-duty US marines or something. 9/11 has now forever altered that now the precedent has been set that everyone dies, hijackers included. Now, faced with six men armed with tiny razor blades, what rational person isn't going to jump up and attempt to beat the living crap out of them, rather than sit down and wait to die? Heck just take a look at flight 93. Mere minutes after the passengers heard about the other planes hitting buildings, they managed to grasp the new paradigm and start fighting back.

    The TSA confiscating such marginal weapons as nail clippers, keychain pocketknives, and yes, even box cutters really is asinine: there is no way such weapons will ever be adequate to hijack a plane again.

    Totally with you on all the others, though.

  • by tftp ( 111690 ) on Monday January 31, 2005 @12:20AM (#11525624) Homepage
    Yes :-)

    The foam decelerated because of both the gravity (things usually don't fall upward) and because of air resistance.

    With regard to the latter, the foam's terminal velocity is far less than 700 mph. Throw a piece of foam from the roof and count how many seconds it takes to hit the ground. I think that the speed would be something like 10 m/s, or 20 mph - far, far less than the speed of the Shuttle.

    What happened is probably this. After the foam got detached from the tank its speed dropped very fast (since it lost propulsion and instead got two factors pulling it back;) given the speed of the Shuttle, you can say that the foam got briefly stuck in the air, and Shuttle hit it as if it were really a static object. It doesn't even matter if the foam was still flying 100 mph up or was already doing 10 mph down.

    BTW, NASA people know the speed of the foam for a fact, because they have the video of it falling and they know how many frames per second the camera takes. So they didn't have to guess or to simulate anything, all they needed is a calculator and some basic dimensions of the Shuttle.

  • by TWX ( 665546 ) on Monday January 31, 2005 @02:31AM (#11526161)
    "But wouldn't the foam be going somewhat near the same speed as the shuttle although it would be decelerating due to gravity or is 700 mph an estimate at the delta of the speed of the shuttle between the foam coming off the tank and hitting the wing during the shuttles acceleration curve?"

    Congratulations, you won't be a NASA engineer in the post-Columbia era.

    More seriously, someone with the ultimate job duty of "decision maker" came to that same conclusion. Yes, the foam wasn't probably moving slower than 70% of the shuttle's speed, if even that slow, but the piece of foam was large enough and the front of the wing was weak enough that it still did damage. Anything striking the shuttle before it has re-entered successfully could result in the kind of disaster that befelled the Columbia, so the shuttle occupants aren't really close to safe until they're cruising like a plane back to the airstrip.
  • by CrimsonAvenger ( 580665 ) on Monday January 31, 2005 @12:15PM (#11528905)
    I think you miss his point.

    It was NOT "Why have a rescue mission standing by?"

    It WAS "Why have a rescue mission standing by for ONLY two flights?"

Make it myself? But I'm a physical organic chemist!