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