The Flight Director’s Nightmare

Ever since the Shuttle first started flying, and perhaps even before, I’ve often thought about a nightmare scenario. I’ve even thought about writing a SF short story, or even full-length novel about it, except that I can’t (intentionally) write fiction (though some would say that I do it often in my attempts to write non-fiction).

A Shuttle launches. Once they attain orbit, it is discovered that they have damage to the tiles that will not allow them to safely enter. In the real world as it existed in the early nineteen eighties, this would be a soul-torturing dilemma, and one that would likely be ultimately passed up to the President. Here’s the problem. The Shuttle doesn’t have enough consumables to last long enough to launch another one to rescue them. The Soviets might be persuaded to launch a couple Soyuz’s, but it’s not clear if they can do it in time, either, and there’s no way to dock them (though early on, they had the “rescue ball concept” for transfer).

But assume as a given that they cannot be rescued (which really did correspond to reality). They only have two choices. They can cross their fingers, pray, or do whatever non-technical things they wish to maximize their chances, and attempt to come home anyway, or they can run out of air on orbit (or choose some faster way to go), and the vehicle becomes a flying tomb, to be either repaired and retrieved later, or reenter in a few weeks. The ethical question, related to this post, is should we destroy the vehicle in a futile attempt to save the crew, or should we sacrifice the crew, who will die either way, and at least attempt to salvage the vehicle? How do the politics play? How does the public react? To make it more interesting, assume that there really is a credible capability to do such a repair and retrieval–that the vehicle really can be saved, and that the crew really cannot.

Now realize that we just averted this scenario in real life only because of the ignorance of Mission Control about the true situation. Is it possible that the tile damage was ignored partly out of (perhaps unconscious) wishful thinking, because the alternative to ignoring it was to face exactly that ethical dilemma and public-relations nightmare? The only difference is that the likelihood of repairing the Orbiter is small. But depending on the level of damage, it might have been larger than the prospects for a safe entry.

One more consideration. If this had been an ISS mission, the crew would likely be alive today, and wondering what to do with a broken orbiter. It’s likely that the damage would have been viewable, and even apparent, when approaching ISS, and the crew would have been able to use the station as a safe haven. But once they launched into an inclination different than that of ISS, if it turns out to be true that the tiles were fatally damaged on ascent, then their fate was sealed, as was their inability to know about it.

All of this, of course, points up the folly of the space policy that we have had in place for the past thirty years, in which we have a single, fragile, unresponsive system to get people to and from space.