Too Little, Too Late

Wayne Hale continues to recall the events of a decade ago, when Columbia was lost, here, and here. And as I suspected at the time, they took the attitude that Gene Kranz did in the movie:

Jon Harpold was the Director of Mission Operations, my supreme boss as a Flight Director. He had spent his early career in shuttle entry analysis. He knew more about shuttle entry than anybody; the guidance, the navigation, the flight control, the thermal environments and how to control them. After one of the MMTs when possible damage to the orbiter was discussed, he gave me his opinion: “You know, there is nothing we can do about damage to the TPS. If it has been damaged it’s probably better not to know. I think the crew would rather not know. Don’t you think it would be better for them to have a happy successful flight and die unexpectedly during entry than to stay on orbit, knowing that there was nothing to be done, until the air ran out?”

I was hard pressed to disagree. That mindset was widespread. Astronauts agreed. So don’t blame an individual; looks for the organizational factors that lead to that kind of a mindset. Don’t let them in your organization.

As I wrote:

…you’re asked to make an assessment, in the absence of any data except a launch video showing some insulation hitting the vehicle, as to whether or not the damage could be catastrophic. Others around you, whom you respect, are saying that it won’t be. You have a bad feeling, but you can’t prove anything with the available data.

What do you do? What’s the benefit, given that there’s no action that can be taken to alleviate the problem, in fighting to get people to recognize that we may have a serious problem?

Moreover, suppose that we do believe that there’s a problem.

Do we tell the crew? What can they do, other than make peace with their God and say goodbye to their families?

Add to that the fact that it would disrupt the mission, perhaps for nothing, and sadly, deliberate ignorance looks appealing.

28 thoughts on “Too Little, Too Late”

  1. NASA faced the same situation with Friendship 7.

    Scott Glenn, as Alan Shepherd, put it very succinctly in The Right Stuff: “He’s a pilot. You tell him the condition of his aircraft.”

  2. BS. The first thing you do is to take a look – either with one of the AF assets or via EVA. Then you decide what to do. And you do it within a day or two of the time you figure you have a problem.

    I read a writeup several years ago that suggested a rescue flight be quick turned. Atlantis was in the VAB being prepped for the next flight. Columbia was a Spacelab long duration mission. The writeup suggested that they could have gone on short consumables and wrung another 7 – 10 maybe even 14 days out of the Columbia. Quick turn Atlantis. Rescue the crew. Boost Columbia into a higher orbit until you can figure out how to repair it on orbit. Fly a second rescue mission to repair and if you can find volunteers, deorbit and recover Columbia.

    Problem is they never even tried. They just let them die via bureaucratic inertia and lack of vision.

    Let that sink in: They never even tried.

    I’ll see if I can find the proposed rescue mission writeup. Cheers –

    1. With the Spacehab in the payload bay, I don’t know if they could’ve exited the Shuttle to do a spacewalk. Was there an airlock available or was that taken up with the connection to the Spacehab module? Did they even have an EVA spacesuit on board?

      From the national perspective, there are assets that could’ve imaged the vehicle to help determine the extent of the damage. One aspect is satellite to satellite imagery. It’s kind of tricky but it has been done. The other is to use ground-based optical systems such as the ones in Maui. They actually did gather some images of Columbia but it was near the end of the mission and none of the released images I’ve seen showed the underside of the orbiter.

      From the moment they saw the launch video showing the insulation impact (IIRC, the day after launch), NASA should’ve requested assistance from the Air Force and national agencies to learn the extent of the damage. IMO, it was criminal negligence that the requests from engineers were overruled by management.

      1. On STS-107 Columbia had a standard middeck internal airlock, two EVA suits, and a Tunnel Adapter in the payload bay with an EVA exit hatch. Standard non-external airlock Orbiter config for all SpaceLab and SpaceHab flights to permit EVAs, either planned or contingency (example of the latter: closure and/or latching of payload bay doors if the drive and/or latch actuators failed or jammed).

    2. Not sure who or what you’re calling BS on.

      I’ve posted two or three times on Hale’s blog, asking him about the “national assets” thing, and he’s always put it off with “I can’t talk about it.” I’m glad he’s finally found a way to talk about it.

      I feel for those people. Everyone makes mistakes, but when your job involves lives, a personal or organizational mistake that elsewhere would have minor consequences, has life-altering (or -ending) ones.

      Considering the complexity of the shuttle and the rigidity of the NASA command structure, it seems inevitable that eventually things would go south, no matter how good the people involved; and Hale and his colleagues were talented, smart, stand-out people or they wouldn’t have been there. And they know the “lessons learned” one hell of a lot better than we do.

      1. Agimarc, I agree with the intent in what you wrote. Atlantis wasn’t in the VAB, but the CAIB had a study that said it could have been pushed out of OPF in a rushed schedule. EVA was impossible. Columbia had no airlock for STS-107, and the reports I’ve read are uncertain as to whether a (one) EMU was even onboard. But those caveats are really just nits at the sentiment.

        I think your point was something could have been done. I’ve argued elsewhere, that absent saving the crew and vehicle, other things could have been done. In fact, the only reason the crew needed to know about an imagery request would have been to put the Orbiter into the best attitude for the asset for the circumstances Larry mentioned. Assets, like the Maui site, frequently took pictures of the Orbiters to train their personnel and calibrate people and equipment.

      2. Sorry Patrick, I appended that comment to you. Originally, I was going to comment along your lines, but changed my wording. Your last paragraph is, I think, the reason Wayne mentioned: “The best case scenario – which had virtually no chance of succeeding – would only have worked if action had been taken on the second or third day of the flight; by the sixth day it was too late.”

        Even when you consider some of the critical cultural issue in the decision making, and then back them out, because someone like Wayne Hale might have decided “to ignore her direction and let the requests stand.” You then have to realize that Wayne’s next step would be to deal with these people who had the mindset of nothing could be done. It’s difficult to believe that mindset would have changed fast enough to get Atlantis out the door and up for a rescue mission. With that, I agree that even an effort to save the crew would have eventually gone south.

      3. I am calling BS on the notion that deliberate ignorance looks appealing.

        I reject out of hand the notion that they know better than we do so we ought to just sit down, shut up and go away.

        There are a lot of us who have done dangerous stuff. I come out of the AF air to mud / close air support / search and rescue business. You screw up and you get dead people. Also have some space stink on me. Difficult doesn’t mean you don’t try. Difficult doesn’t mean that every single person with a stake in the decision shouldn’t participate in that decision and choice. Their most valuable asset in the entire event was the crew and they never used them.

        I believe they had a spacelab – the long module – rather than the spacehab module in the cargo bay. Cheers –

  3. A friend of mine worked at a company that did post-landing servicing of the Shuttle, and was always sent to the prime recovery area. Columbia was scheduled from the start to come in at Edwards, and he was out there waiting. About halfway through the mission, rumors of a problem began to circulate. His crew was abruptly pulled from Edwards and sent to the Cape. As he recalls it, the whispered word around NASA was that they wanted to be able to recover the debris, and knew it wouldn’t make Edwards.

    1. That sounds a bit crazy, as the Shuttles only land at Edwards if the weather at the Cape is bad, which can’t be planned for ahead of time.

      1. There was good reason for that since landing at Edwards meant a 747 ferry flight back to the Cape resulting in significant cost and schedule delays.

    2. This comment struck me as completely crazy when I first read it, but I think I know where some confusion may have come from. There was discussion that Columbia was going to be modified to support ISS missions (CAIB, pg 28 last paragraph in the gray section) after STS-107. If that work was going to happen in Palmdale, a landing at Edwards might have been examined. I think the reasoning is missing a few steps, but it would cloud the issue. The CAIB also mentioned (either in the main report or minority report) that the ISS assembly schedule had gotten so tight there was pressure to avoid Edwards landings because of the processing timeline hit that a 747 flight entailed.

  4. The big question is IF rescue was impossible. This old article from 2003 argues there may have been overlooked options.

    A patchwork plan for space rescue
    ‘What-if’ scenario might have employed payloads and second shuttle for survival

    By James Oberg NBC News space analyst

    If nothing else it would have reflected that you don’t give up without at least trying to do something…

    1. Well if NASA had notified the Air Force of a problem, the Air Force would’ve contacted the Asgard, and Supreme Commander Thor would’ve just beamed the crew back to Florida.

      1. George,

        Thanks for illustrating the different between this generation of aerospace professionals and the Apollo generation 🙂

  5. I absolutely disagree with the premise being postulated (Nothing can be done, so why look and see?) because it overlooks one huge and overriding aspect that should have been in the decision matrix: hundreds of innocent lives being put at unneeded risk.

    As Leyland pointed out in a prior thread, EVEN IF absolutely nothing could be done for the crew, it was still NASA’s responsibility to avoid unnecessary risk to people on the ground.

    Columbia’s re-entry track came close to San Francisco and Las Vegas, and went over Albuquerque and Dallas. The latter two were absolutely at risk for being in the center of the debris footprint has breakup occurred just a little earlier. As it was, we nearly lost people in East Texas.

    Any idea how fast the main engines were going on impact? Supersonic at least, maybe hypersonic. Imagine what they’d do coming into downtown Dallas at an acute angle.

    NASA goes to great lengths to avoid satellites falling randomly. The authorization for Hubble mandated that it not do so, for example. But, they couldn’t trouble themselves to see if a shuttle had a problem before bringing it in over major cities? Or, if they suspect there might be a problem, at least alter the reentry track by selecting a different orbit for reentry.

    I don’t blame Wane Hale at all, but whomever made the decision to call off the requests for imaging utterly ignored the fact that they were putting innocent civilians at needless risk. They could very easily have brought Columbia in on a different orbit, one with a ground track to keep it away from major population centers.

    This issue (Risk on the ground) is a critical part of the calculation regarding what to do. It should not be ignored, yet it seems that it both was, and is.

    1. CAIB discusses this on page 213. Notable quote: “The Board-sponsored study concluded that, given the unlikely event of a similar Orbiter breakup over a densely populated area such as Houston, the most likely outcome would be one or two ground casualties.” Public safety must be taken seriously, but must also be analyzed rationally.

    2. Any idea how fast the main engines were going on impact? Supersonic at least, maybe hypersonic. Imagine what they’d do coming into downtown Dallas at an acute angle.

      Very unlikey they’d be going supersonic, much less hypersonic. The terminal velocity of those engines would depend on the mass of the engine (likely after partial disintegration) and the drag of the pieces (increasing as they fell into denser air). Even many iron bombs don’t reach supersonic velocities at impact and they’re dense and streamlined.

      Still, the point about endangering people on the ground with falling debris is valid.

    3. CJ, I do think you got more concerns correctly. I too don’t blame Wayne Hale.

      And while I’m sure many found comfort in thinking the crew didn’t know what happened; I neither believe they were unaware nor could not have accepted the inevitable if necessary. But I do think you ask a test pilot if they want to know or remain ignorant about the condition of their vehicle; they will want to know. You have no chance at all when you remain ignorant.

      1. Plus, the crew were intelligent people who would’ve had great motivation to find a creative solution. There’s an old quote:

        “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

        — Dr. Samuel Johnson

    4. Arizona CJ

      There are also other factors that needed to be considered if it was known that the crew was doomed.

      First, the experiments in the Spacelab that were lost. Although the crew may not have been able to survive a month on orbit waiting for a rescue, most of the experimental results likely could have with a little preparation by the crew, ensuring that at least the result of their work survived them.

      Also if left on orbit the recovery shuttle mission could have exactly determined the extent of the damage, something folks are still only estimating even with all the research done.

      And finally, the bodies could have at least been brought back intact for burial instead of being scattered over the debris field.

      1. Also if left on orbit the recovery shuttle mission could have exactly determined the extent of the damage, something folks are still only estimating even with all the research done.

        This could have been done with or without a recovery shuttle mission. Ignoring crew safety for a moment; millions, if not billions, was spent on the research to estimate what was done. This far exceeded the cost of imagery.

        1. Leland,

          True, but there would had still been a mission to the Columbia for the other purposes noted above so an up close inspection would have been done as part of it.

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