29Jun2014

Columbia Crew Could Have Been Saved, Says NASA Engineer

 Launch

The fated crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia could have been saved in theory, according to a NASA engineer, who spoke to the BBC. History has recorded the the greatest ‘what-if’ of all time.

As Space Shuttle Columbia rose through the perfect clear sky above Florida on 16 January 2003, a lump of foam came loose from the strut holding the craft’s nose to its giant orange fuel tank. With the spacecraft climbing at more than twice the speed of sound, the foam lump slammed into the fragile leading edge of the wing with the force of a concrete block.

Seventeen days later the spacecraft re-entered the atmosphere and broke apart. The disaster killed everyone on board, and ultimately sounded the death knell for the Space Shuttle programme. But could the astronauts have been saved? A NASA engineer who worked on the shuttle programme from the very start, David Baker, has written official reports and books on the spaceplane. During research for a forthcoming lecture at the British Interplanetary Society, he studied plans that suggest that a dramatic and audacious orbital rescue mission could have been launched – if only Mission Control had known about the danger in time.

Crew

The fated crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia could have been saved in theory, according to a NASA engineer, who spoke to the BBC

 When Columbia lifted from its launchpad, footage captured by high-speed cameras showed foam coming loose and striking the orbiter. Several days later images taken by ground telescopes indicated the wing might have been damaged. “The big mistake was not having a sufficiently detailed and intensive analysis soon enough,” says Baker. “It just didn’t appear the damage was going to be that bad until, as evidence built day by day, it became very clear.”

According to Baker, the Atlantis space shuttle was close to being ready for a March 1 launch when Columbia lifted off on January 16. Columbia only had enough supplies to keep the astronauts alive for 30 days, so a rescue mission would have required recognizing the problem by Day 2 and speeding up the preparation schedule for Atlantis from six weeks to four weeks. “Its engines were installed,” said Baker, “and it was in a pretty neat condition to get it over to the vehicle assembly building fast and launch it.”

 But as time was of the essence, the craft would have had to be readied for launch at an unprecedented pace. To do that within four weeks, rather than six, would have been tough but doable. With round-the-clock shifts, this would have involved streamlining every launch process – from rewriting software and refining procedures to training the rescue crew. This was the very “failure is not an option” attitude that saved the astronauts of Apollo 13 when their spacecraft was damaged on the way to the Moon in 1970.

The STS-107 crewmembers strike a ‘flying’ pose for their traditional in-flight crew portrait in the SPACEHAB Research Double Module (RDM) aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia. From the left (bottom row), wearing red shirts to signify their shift’s color, are astronauts Kalpana Chawla, mission specialist; Rick D. Husband, mission commander; Laurel B. Clark, mission specialist; and Ilan Ramon, payload specialist. From the left (top row), wearing blue shirts, are astronauts David M. Brown, mission specialist; William C. McCool, pilot; and Michael P. Anderson, payload commander. Ramon represents the Israeli Space Agency. Credit: NASA

The STS-107 crewmembers strike a ‘flying’ pose for their traditional in-flight crew portrait in the SPACEHAB Research Double Module (RDM) aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia. From the left (bottom row), wearing red shirts to signify their shift’s color, are astronauts Kalpana Chawla, mission specialist; Rick D. Husband, mission commander; Laurel B. Clark, mission specialist; and Ilan Ramon, payload specialist. From the left (top row), wearing blue shirts, are astronauts David M. Brown, mission specialist; William C. McCool, pilot; and Michael P. Anderson, payload commander. Ramon represents the Israeli Space Agency. Credit: NASA

Atlantis could have been sent into an orbit bringing it within six degrees to Columbia at a 90 degree angle – requiring skilled piloting to prevent the tails from colliding. With a reduced crew of four astronauts, while two of them would pilot the Atlantis, the other two would begin the rescue, first bringing over lithium hydroxide canisters to reduce life-threatening carbon dioxide levels on the Columbia. Then the Atlantis astronauts would position an extendable pole between the two shuttles to guide the crew of the Columbia to safety.

Two by two, the Columbia crew would spacewalk to the Atlantis, in a process that would take at least 48 hours because of the time it takes to don a space suit and avoid a fateful mistake when moving from airlock to airlock, explained Baker.

“What if?” scenarios are always beguiling, but this one was not only possible but also planned for. “It could have been done,” said Baker. “It would have been possible but frankly the mindset at NASA was so rigid compared to the lightening decisions and quick responses we had during Apollo.” After launch, the Columbia crew were seemingly oblivious to any danger. As the hours ticked away, so had their only real chance of rescue. Credit: BBChaaretz.com

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