[FPSPACE] BBC Horizon "Guide to the Space Shuttle"...could the Columbia have been saved?

Julie Miller juliermiller at earthlink.net
Wed Apr 25 15:12:46 EDT 2012

Every single scenario I've seen which claims that Columbia could have 
been saved assumes several things -

Either -

A change to the laws of physics (having Columbia rendezvous with the 
space station or launching anything from Bakinour)

or -

Too much knowledge which didn't exist at the time (anything which 
requires hindsight or any information unavailable to the mission 
control teams during the mission or finding out information before it 
was actually available)

Equipment aboard Columbia which didn't exist (Columbia had no EVA 
compatible cameras - video or digital, no robot arm, and only had 
LiHO canisters, etc.)

Almost infinite resources on the ground (the capability to ask, 
receive permission, and gain access to launch vehicles in other 
countries, prepare ascent profiles in less than a week, some kind of 
canister which would fit on that rocket, etc.)


A team on the ground which never (or at least almost never) makes any 
mistakes and always selects the correct choices while preparing for 
the rescue attempt.

If you do come up with a scenario where this super-intelligent never 
makes mistakes team can save Columbia, then you've got to ask 
yourself why didn't the same people have those abilities in October 
2002 at the STS-113 flight readiness review when the STS-112 falling 
bipod issue was addressed and effectively ignored? That's the point 
where the Columbia "rescue" scenario should have been performed - 
ground the fleet until a fix is in place, just as was done for the 
flowliners earlier that year.

Discussing scenarios for saving Columbia's crews is like discussing 
how all of the passengers on the Titanic could have been saved, or 
saving everybody in the second World Trade Center tower after the 
first one was hit, or any other historical scenario. It's always 
easier to say why didn't they do things differently after the fact.

Borrowing an Ariane rocket to launch supplies to extend Columbia's 
stay in space requires many assumptions - a new launch trajectory 
which had never been flown, more maneuvering and engine restarts of 
the Ariane upper stage than has ever been done, a non-existent cargo 
canister (to say nothing about the shipping and customs problems to 
get the cargo to French Guiana), no rendezvous aids, some way of at 
least *partially* stabilizing that container once it's within place 
where it can be reached from an outstretched arm in a spacesuit, some 
way of getting that container temporarily attached to the shuttle (I 
suppose an EVA tether would do, even though the container would 
probably bounce back and forth and eventually damage the tunnel), a 
way of avoiding the jack-in-the-box effect when opening up the 
container to take the stuff into the airlock (unless you're assuming 
that you can squeeze everything into a container small enough to fit 
into the airlock), and probably a bunch of other things.

Remember that the repair/rescue scenarios which NASA came up with 
under the CAIB's orders starts with the assumption that there's 
ABSOLUTE FIRM EVIDENCE 5 days after launch that Columbia is doomed 
and will not survive reentry. Only with that hard axiom in place do 
you make the decision to cancel all crew activity, including the 
experiments the crew was performing, kill the rats (two extra LiHO 
canisters), and go into minimum power mode. And even that assumes 
that you've got no major issues while preparing Atlantis for a rescue 
mission AND that you're willing to launch Atlantis with the absolute 
knowledge that on two of the previous three launches foam fell off 
the bipod (STS-112 and STS-107) and caused damage to flight hardware 
in BOTH instances and you don't know whether or not it fell off on 
the third (STS-113) because it was a night launch. And even then, 
that rescue scenario was devised after weeks of work and the 
knowledge that the Columbia accident had occurred (hindsight).

They COULD NOT have had hard evidence that early - there just wasn't 
enough information that early. The fact that the foam hit wasn't even 
known until the day after launch when the film was examined.

Every single day STS-107 was in space the crew was busy performing 
their experiments, including extremely heavy exercise for the 
European ARMS experiment. That consumes a LOT of LiHO cans. Only 
after the Mission Evaluation Team is concerned enough that there 
*might* be a chance that a rescue would be needed would it be 
justifiable to tell the crew to stop doing experiments and power down 
everything until Mission Control can determine whether or not the 
wing is safe, if an emergency spacewalk might be needed, or whatever 
else might be necessary. If that happens after about half way into 
the mission they've already consumed enough LiHO cans that there 
wouldn't be enough time to fly up emergency supplies.

I don't recall how many LiHO cans were onboard or how many extra 
weather wave-off days were available to the crew. I read that there 
was no consideration to extending the mission for science because the 
Biotube payload wanted to come back as quickly as possible.

If six members of the crew decide to sacrifice themselves and take 
the mythical suicide pills which don't exist then the remaining 
person would have enough supplies to last much longer. But - right or 
wrong - Mission Control considers the crew to be "one unit" when 
considering rescue scenarios, plans are only devised where everybody 
can be saved.

A plausible rescue which doesn't violate the laws of physics is not 
impossible - I'll agree with that. But impossible and could actually 
have been performed in the real world within the actual absolute 
constraints - I don't think so. (IMHO of course).

Of course for many of the media (not all) it's much more 
exciting/newsworthy/interesting to talk about possible rescue 
scenarios than the hard facts and real world limitations. (IMHO of course).

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