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NASA Space

The Rescue Plan That Could Have Saved Space Shuttle Columbia 247

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) Homepage Journal

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

  • Re:However.. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by IndigoDarkwolf ( 752210 ) on Wednesday February 26, 2014 @06:52PM (#46351673)
    Not to mention, this sounds like the kind of plan that could easily result in the loss of two crews, instead of one.
  • by Maxo-Texas ( 864189 ) on Wednesday February 26, 2014 @06:52PM (#46351679)

    Because you were cutting corners?

    What then?

  • by Minwee ( 522556 ) <> 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 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.

  • 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."

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

    by EvolutionInAction ( 2623513 ) on Wednesday February 26, 2014 @08:51PM (#46353043)

    Fuck you. I don't normally go for insults, I like reasoned discussion. But fuck you if you think that the engineers and managers involved in the disaster weren't devastated. They made a choice, and it was the wrong choice. But you don't know jack shit about what went into that choice. How many times had there been foam strikes with no damage? How many times had they sacrificed part of the mission to do inspection, only to find no damage?

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

    by JustOK ( 667959 ) on Wednesday February 26, 2014 @08:59PM (#46353121) Journal
    The REALLY cool kids are the ones AT NASA
  • Re:Other options? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Wednesday February 26, 2014 @09:39PM (#46353473)

    Say it how it is, the main difference to Apollo 13 was that the shuttle design was simply by no means as solid as the one of the Apollo rockets.

    V. Braun, no matter what you might think about him, made sure there's a backup plan available. Always. Well, I guess you get that way when you spend your first test years ducking for cover from explosion debris. I think I remember an interview where he remarked that he did play out everything that could even possibly go wrong every time he designed something and that we haven't seen about 90% of what the Apollo capsules COULD actually do in an emergency because we (thankfully) never needed them.

    Apollo 13 is a good example of a mission that could easily have gone south if it happened to a less solid platform.

    The shuttle was over-engineered. There were simply too many little things that could go wrong to be a safe launch platform. Solid boosters (another thing v. Braun despised) and a pretty much unshielded heat shield (where other parts may bang against) were the two things that eventually cost lives.

    Personally, I think we should consider ourselves damn lucky it was just 2.

  • Re:However.. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 26, 2014 @10:12PM (#46353685)

    They made a choice, and it was the wrong choice

    And I'm not even convinced it was the wrong choice. From TFA, and I read the report when it came out, and TFA is just a rehash of the report, but it puts it pretty damn well.

    "Three unceasing, brutal weeks of 24/7 shift workâ"and that's with absolutely no margin factored in for errors or failures. The Orbital Processing Facility team, the Vehicle Assembly Building team, and the Launch Complex 39 pad team would have had to get every one of the millions of steps right, and every component of Atlantis would have had to function perfectly the very first time, or it would all be wasted."

    I believe the engineer-focused NASA of the 70s could have done something like that. The management-focus NASA of the 2000s? Despite the presence of many talented engineers (both holdovers from the earlier era and more recent hires who still give a damn but are hobbled by management)? There's no way in hell today's organization would have gotten Atlantis to the launch pad before time ran out, let alone off the ground.

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

    by Jarik C-Bol ( 894741 ) on Wednesday February 26, 2014 @11:05PM (#46353915)
    Or worse, they could have gotten Atlantis into orbit, only to discover they had TWO shuttles in orbit with deadly foam strikes. Or they could have blown up Atlantis on the pad because they crammed a month worth of work into 5 days, and a weeks worth of safety and inspection checks into a few hours. Hindsight always reveals a ton of 'what if's' but in all honestly, they took option that put the fewest number of lives at risk. They lost those lives, but the call had to be made.
  • 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.

When a fellow says, "It ain't the money but the principle of the thing," it's the money. -- Kim Hubbard