[FoRK] AP wire on the "Viking funeral" scenario for Columbia crew

Rohit Khare rohit at ics.uci.edu
Wed Mar 31 19:59:05 PST 2004

[another post that vanished into the ether back then]

From: Rohit Khare <rohit at ics.uci.edu>
Date: February 3, 2003 2:00:05 AM PST
To: fork-archive at xent.com
Subject: AP/STS-107: even if we'd known, not much could be done

NASA Options to Save Doomed Columbia Vary
By Marcia Dunn
Associated Press Aerospace Writer
posted: 11:00 pm ET
02 February 2003

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) -- If liftoff damage to Columbia's thermal 
tiles caused the disaster, was the crew doomed from the very start?

Or could NASA have saved all or some of the seven astronauts by trying 
some Hollywood-style heroics -- a potentially suicidal spacewalk, 
perhaps, or a rescue mission by another shuttle?

Some of the ideas that have been suggested would have been highly 
impractical, dangerous and perhaps futile.

The shuttle does not carry spare tiles, and NASA insists there was 
nothing on board that the crew could have used to repair or replace 
missing or broken ones. In any case, the space agency believed at the 
time that the tile damage was nothing to worry about and thus nothing 
worth risking a life over.

Still, as James Oberg, a former shuttle flight controller and author 
who has been bombarded by ``Armageddon''-type rescue ideas via e-mail, 
said Sunday: ``They may be implausible, but not by much.'' He added: 
``There's always the question of miracles.''

NASA knew from Day Two of Columbia's 16-day research mission that a 
piece of the insulating foam on the external fuel tank peeled off just 
after liftoff and struck the left wing, possibly ripping off some of 
the tiles that keep the ship from burning up when it re-enters Earth's 

A frame-by-frame analysis of launch video and film clearly showed a 
clump of something streaking away from Columbia 80 seconds into the 

Engineers spent days analyzing the situation and concluded that there 
was no reason for concern. The flight director in charge of Columbia's 
Jan. 16 launch and Saturday's descent from orbit, Leroy Cain, assured 
reporters as much on Friday.

But hours after the disaster, shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore 
acknowledged that NASA might have been wrong and that wing damage on 
launch day might have contributed to or even caused Columbia to 
disintegrate on re-entry.

"It's one of the areas we're looking at first, early, to make sure that 
the investigative team is concentrating on that theory or that set of 
facts as we are starting to unfold,'' NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe 
said Sunday.

Dittemore himself said: ``My thoughts are on what we missed, what I 
missed, to allow this to happen.''

Some facts remain:
    * NASA did not attempt to examine Columbia's left wing with 
high-powered telescopes on the ground, 180 miles below, or with spy 
satellites. The last time NASA tried that, to check Discovery's 
drag-chute compartment during John Glenn's shuttle flight in 1998, the 
pictures were of little use, Dittemore said. Besides, he said, ``there 
was zero we could have done about it.''
    * Similarly, NASA did not ask the crew of international space 
station to use its cameras to examine the wing when the two ships 
passed within a few hundred miles of each other several times over the 
past two weeks.
    * NASA did not consider a spacewalk by the crew to inspect the left 
wing. The astronauts are not trained or equipped to repair tile damage 
anywhere on the shuttle, least of all on a relatively inaccessible area 
like the underside of a wing, Dittemore said.

Could NASA have sent another shuttle to rescue Columbia's five men and 
two women?

In theory, yes.

Normally, it takes four months to prepare a shuttle for launch. But in 
a crisis, shuttle managers say they might be able to put together a 
launch in less than a week if all testing were thrown out the window 
and a shuttle were already on the pad.

Columbia had enough fuel and supplies to remain in orbit until 
Wednesday, and the astronauts could have scrimped to stay up another 
few days beyond that. With shuttle Atlantis ready to be moved to its 
pad, it theoretically could have been rushed into service, and 
Columbia's astronauts could have climbed aboard in a series of 
spacewalks. If Atlantis flew with the minimum crew of two, it could 
have accommodated seven more astronauts.

Could Columbia's astronauts have abandoned ship and climbed aboard the 
international space station?

Because Columbia was in an entirely different orbit than the space 
station, it did not have enough fuel to fly to the orbiting outpost. 
Even if the shuttle could have limped there, it could not have docked. 
Columbia was not equipped with a docking ring since it was never meant 
to go there. So the shuttle astronauts would have had to float over in 
spacesuits to get there.

Could Columbia's astronauts have gone out on a spacewalk to inspect and 
perhaps repair their own ship?

That assumes, first of all, that the astronauts could have rigged up 
something, ``Apollo 13''-style, to replace the missing tiles. But there 
was nothing on board, according to Dittemore and others. Back in the 
early shuttle days, NASA considered a tile-patching kit that was 
essentially a caulking gun, but the gunk undermined the performance of 
the tiles and never flew.

Two of Columbia's astronauts, Michael Anderson and David Brown, were 
trained to do a spacewalk, and they had the suits to do it. But neither 
was trained to do anything more than a relatively simple emergency 
repair, like freeing a stuck radio antenna or fixing a jammed latch 
that could cause the ship to burn up during re-entry.

Moreover, a spacewalk to reach the underside of the wings could have 
been suicidal, because there is nothing to hold on to, and the 
astronauts did not have mini-jetpacks to propel themselves. The 
astronauts could have floated off and never gotten back to the shuttle.

Anderson theorized just last summer on how he would go about reaching a 
trapdoor on the belly of the shuttle that was stuck open, in order to 
close it. He would have had to rig a 60-foot tether to a weighted bag, 
lasso it over one of the wings, and then crawl along the line hand over 
hand to reach the jammed trapdoor.

The chance of all this working, within the eight-to-nine-hour limit of 
a spacewalk, is practically zilch. The spacewalkers probably would not 
have had enough oxygen to make it back inside.

And Dittemore said Sunday they could easily have worsened the situation 
anyway. ``Just the nature of them trying to position themselves in 
space underneath the vehicle could cause more damage than what we were 
trying to fix,'' he said.

In theory, NASA could have had the shuttle descend through the 
atmosphere at a much shallower angle of entry in hopes of relieving the 
heat on the ship. But that could have life-threatening dangers, too. 
That kind of a flight profile almost certainly would have had the 
shuttle coming in too fast to make a safe landing.

If it was determined that there was no way Columbia and crew could 
survive an re-entry, and another spacecraft could not reach them in 
time, they would have been stuck in orbit for a couple of months before 
being dragged down through the atmosphere in a fireball.

"It would be visible at dawn and dusk and that would be pretty 
creepy,'' Oberg said. ``But on the other hand, that would be also a 
memorial. It would be a Viking funeral."

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