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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.Posted by Rand Simberg at February 02, 2003 11:18 AM
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You realize you've just made an argument for having a space station, one I haven't seen before? Having a "safe haven" in orbit reduces the risks, especially if your primary concern is the lives of those involved. In your scenario, worst comes to worst, they'd have to jettison the damaged orbiter, or maybe send it home empty (or with volunteer crew who'd be real heros). But all sort of options would remain (and maybe some difficult decisions made). In the scenario you describe, as we've just seen, there are only bad options.
Planning should have already been done on this subject. I like see what they'd do in such a case-- send the expedition home in the Soyuz to decrease the use of expendables? Quickly (relatively speaking) send up a Progress?
On a similar note, I think it's important that NASA come out this week and state what it's contingency plans are for ISS. In my opinion, they need to state that the crew rotation will take place as planned, and they are working with the Russians to get extra Progresses and maybe even extra Soyuz sent there during the interim to help with the work load. Anything less means that NASA was never really serious about the whole project, as they had to know that there could be a catastrophe, and we're talking about an organization that plans for everything.
Could they have reached the ISS, if they had realized they had a problem once they reached orbit?
And if they did, that still creates more problems. The Soyuz can only take three, right? So, presumably you'd need at least three, assuming they can be launched and dock with the ISS unmanned.
How quickly could we launch another shuttle?Posted by Don Vollum at February 2, 2003 01:32 PM
Could they have reached the ISS, if they had realized they had a problem once they reached orbit?
No.Posted by Rand Simberg at February 2, 2003 01:41 PM
Each individual astronaut alone was worth more honor and regard than any piece of machinery they rode in, but I have no desire to join in any flame war. Each of us will mourn as we will.
We now have experience with tragedy at the two riskiests points - launch and reentry. But it could have come in any other way, and still may (certainly) in the future.
Some things are worth the cost of lives; that doesn't diminish those lives. It's important to honor the spirit of those that knowingly take these risks.
I worry about the likely reaction to this tragedy. In the name of safety I fear a lot of huge mistakes are about to be made. Safety doesn't come from having the safest systems, it comes from having options. Apparently there are two options we don't have right now...
1) We can't do a pre-reentry walkaround.
I've mentioned it before, and now think I should say it again. Would not a permanent orbital taxi/bus/tug with engines capable of moving it to any orbit address both of these issues?
People and cargo should be launched separately. If the cost of sending cargo is cheap enough we could send two for the price of one and have plenty of safety for our cargo and the risk to lives would be reduced significantly (it's never zero - falling debris or whatever.)
A vehicle for people only could be smaller, less complicated and therefore safer. It should be designed for one purpose only. To bring astronauts to work, then safely home again... Unless of course they wish to work at home in which case... L5?
Thank you Rand for pointing out some of the technical details of the Columbia and for hosting this space. Although we've never met, I doubt that you've got pointed ears or ice for blood.
Posted by kenneth anthony at February 2, 2003 03:43 PM
I've been thinking the same thing. If this had been a mission to the Station, it would have likely made a massive difference. It wouldn't have made much difference if the cause of the burn-up on re-entry was not visible on the spacecraft, but given that the shuttle checked out prior to lift-off, there was likely damage during the stresses of lift-off, and any such damage would surely be visible on the exterior. It certainly seems likely that the tiles were damaged on lift-off because they would have been closely inspected prior to lift-off and the tiles are the primary mechanism intended to ensure a safe re-entry. Tiles have been lost before although not with a resultant loss of the spacecraft.
Surely if the shuttle was docked at the Station a camera on the station arm or an EVA could have noticed a significant danger with respect to re-entry. Note that this means that shuttle missions to the Station are significantly safer than other missions, because of the inspection and, possibly, services available at the Station. Had a Station with a full time crew of 6 been completed, Columbia would have presumably not been sent up to do on orbit research (that could be done at the Station), and Columbia would not have been lost. So out of this accident we find a justification for the Station (leaving the question of whether human space flight is justified relative to the cost aside).
If this had been a Station mission, you thus likely would have had 10 people stranded up there for at least several weeks. You could say that the next shuttle would have been up March 1 since that is when it is scheduled, but of course if this mission had been to the Station it wouldn't have happened so soon before the March mission. So the wait likely would have been four months minimum for another shuttle (there would have to be an investigation in order to prevent the possibility of the next one getting damaged so you have two stranded shuttles up there (and 17 people on the Station!)). 10 would be a lot on the Station, but 3 could descend immediately on the Soyuz, and the Station generally has at least six months supplies for 3 people after each time it is visited. So the 7 left up there could surely manage when one adds in a consideration of the the Russian launches to the Station.
Bringing down extra people on the next Shuttle should be manageable. If necessary, throw an unfinished future Station module into the cargo bay to be used for the sole purpose of transporting people. A bigger issue would be how to repair the damaged shuttle. It may be unworkable, especially since both shuttles could not be simultaneously docked to the Station, to my knowledge. In that case it would have to be scuttled, which shouldn't pose much problem either given the fact that Mir was successfully deorbited. The damaged shuttle could be stripped of all it valuables first.
In short, the magnitude of the loss would likely have been a very small fraction of what it was if only the mission had been to the Station.
As an aside, note that the Station servicing fleet is just as intact as it was before the loss of Columbia - Columbia never had the capacity to dock with the Station and so was never scheduled to go to the Station. A replacement orbiter is accordingly totally unnecessary with respect to the servicing and construction of the Station.Posted by Brian Dell at February 2, 2003 04:14 PM
rand.. you are the rocket scientist... but the orbiter "really" couldn't have made it to the station... using up all of the fuel that it had??
i realise it was in a bad orbit for statio intersection... but may it not have been possible(since there''s enough fuel to deorbit, there should be enough to move orbit, unless one's retrograde while the other's normal...)Posted by libertarian uber alles at February 2, 2003 04:41 PM
I'm not saying that they could have made it to station on this mission as planned. I'm saying that had the planned mission been to the station, it would have had a much more interesting, and perhaps happier, outcome.Posted by Rand Simberg at February 2, 2003 04:44 PM
I don't understand the part about NO Pre-flight walk around.
Mission Control was worried about the impact after reviewing the video after launch.
Couldn't someone have done a tethered spacewalk and hand-over-handed it to the area of the shuttle that NASA thought might be damaged?
I though all shuttles could be opened for a space walk.
(Planned spacewalks take lots of training in the float tanks so it is possible that none of the crew was "spacewalk certified".)
If the damage initiating point was internal (a cracked spar etc.) a visual inspection might not reveal anything.
Also, if the damage was initiated by a micro-meteor impact, or space debris impact, and not "the" launch impact, nothing could have been done. Space is not exactly empty.
Also, if there was some visual damage specifically to the left side, re-do the glide profile to avoid the speed reducing turns on the left. (i.e. initiate from a higher lattitude and continuous curve to the right/clockwise I think). But again, no real grasp of what this would entail in terms of reprogramming the auto pilot, landing in, say, Boliva instead of Florida, just some thoughts.)Posted by Adriane at February 2, 2003 06:54 PM
If NASA suspected a problem, then a spacewalk might have been a prudent thing to do, but it in itself is a risky venture no matter how simple the astronauts make it look.
My suggestion was more in line of a preflight/pre-reentry check. Not only do pilots do it, truck drivers do it. The purpose is not to find something you suspect, but to find things you don't suspect. It doesn't mean you find every problem. It's just a good habit. If making a rendevous was standard practice, then the ship being checked could slowly rotate while another (the space tug?) stood off a distance to take a look. That doesn't risk a spacewalk.
Whoever piloted the space tug would get a lot of experience with docking (making it safer) and would likely have a co-pilot with lots of spacewalk experience. Experience is what we need and putting a vehicle permanently in orbit means it only has to go up once and never has to come back down. After launch this completely eliminates the most dangerous aspects of space travel. At the same time it means reducing cost; one launch and you're done.
We don't need the shuttle for anything. We had safety systems on the 1960s capsules that likely would have protected the passengers at launch. I suspect that reentry was safer too (although they almost lost a heat shield once, it never resulted in the loss of life.)
I think our problem is Buck Rogers. We have an idea how this should work so we ignore how it did work. There's no point in making a launch vehicle reusable, it doens't reduce cost or increase safety. Let's get over it.
Whatever happened to the space tug? It's not my idea. NASA came up with it in the 60s (which I must not have lived through since I remember it! ;-) I was born in the 50's so I still see Neil and Buzz taking those first steps, not to mention that cool buggy the later guys had.
We have skilled, noble heros to do the job. We need to make sure we're risking lives doing the right job. We need people to gain experience working in the environment. Instead they spend most of there time in training and simulators rather than gaining real experience. Most astronauts go up once (or not at all) and that is ridiculous. If the environment isn't safe for them to spend more time in it, then that's the issue we need to be working on.
Instead we have a group of people, most going up for the first time, and it turns out there last.
The paradox is that reducing the cost of launch makes it safer.
I will preface my remarks with the statement that I am neither a space geek nor a conspiracy theorist; I do, however, have an engineering background as well as ample experience with management-speak.
The more I read regarding NASA's actions prior to the disaster in evaluating potential damage to the left wing during the launch, the more convinced I become that NASA knew beforehand there was a high probability this disaster would occur. This impression comes not from reading a single account of NASA's actions but from piecing together information from many sources. It is reinforced by the vigor and frequency with which NASA proclaims that their pre-disaster analysis of the launch incident showed it to be of no consequence to the safety of the mission, as if NASA believes that if they assert this often enough, the public will come to accept it without question.
I believe NASA knew, while the mission was in progress, that there was a high probability disaster might occur. NASA also knew there was nothing to be done about the situation and, I believe, chose to remain quiet and hope for the best during re-entry.
As I said, I'm no conspiracy theorist. I hope I'm wrong. But my instinct tells me there's more going on here than NASA admits to. In light of what we learned after the Challenger disaster about NASA's decision-making in the hours leading up to that disaster, I believe there are reasonable grounds for my suspicions.
Also, I must say that Dittemore is not representing NASA to the public very well during the investigative process. He comes across as being unsure of himself. His statements and answers to questions ramble and often don't address the question that was asked. In some cases he comes across as being borderline evasive. Watching the NASA televised press conference this afternoon, I was aghast at his reply to a reporter's question whether NASA had considered that the object which struck and damaged the tiles might have been ice and not foam (a very good question, BTW, especially given the extreme cold Florida experienced a few weeks ago): "I am not intelligent enough to answer that today. Ask me again in a couple of days and I will be able to answer that for you" (paraphrased from memory). What I heard was, "No, we had not considered that possibility and there is no was I could possibly admit that publicly." Whether this is in fact the case, it's how he came across. He may be a very good engineer and perhaps even a good manager -- I don't know -- but his handling of these press conferences so far inspires in me no confidence in his ability to lead this investigation.Posted by at February 3, 2003 11:47 PM
Ken, you've put into words something I've been feeling for the past couple of days. There seems to be a lot of cover-your-ass behavior going on at NASA, and Dittemore seems less credible every time I see and hear him.
Unlike Challenger, I don't know if this was a preventable tragedy (who knows at this point whether launches should have been suspended until the foam breakaway problem was solved?). But what is striking is that no real efforts were made while Columbia was aloft to determine if there had been any damage to the tiles. For example, no effort was made (as was on Columbia's maiden voyage in 1981) to orient the craft to allow inspection by ground-based cameras and imaging devices. NASA was acting like someone who discovers a suspicious lump in their abdomen but doesn't go to the doctor because they're afraid it might be cancer. When does a problem cease to exist because you ignore it? Even if nothing could have been done about the problem, having as much data as possible would be crucial to taking steps to prevent it in the future.
I'm also struck at how NASA was getting clear data something was happening to the left wing on descent but did not give this information to the crew. I don't know whether it's NASA policy to keep the crew in the dark about potentially fatal situations over which the crew has no control (remember how John Glenn was not told the reason for not jetisioning his retropack until the moment of re-entry?), but if I were part of the crew I would want to have all data, good and bad, that affected my chances of survival.
The inability to look problems squarely in the eye and accept responsibilities for outcomes is a classic failing of poor managers. I hate to say it, but this is starting to look like the Challenger aftermath. Don't get me wrong---we not only need to be in space, we must be in space. I just wonder if NASA under its current structure and management is up to the task.
Harry, I believe you are commenting on my post (directly preceding yours) and not Ken's, which precedes mine. When making my post I inadvertantly omitted my name. Sorry for the confusion.
No worries -- just looking to make sure that we all correctly understand on which post you based your commentary.Posted by gojou at February 4, 2003 04:25 PM
So who's guarding the hen house? Both NASA and the Pentagon are both seemingly cut from the same cloth when it comes to public money (the B1 when it came out reminds me of the shuttle in terms of ROI.) Congress seems not to have the will to deal with it.
Understanding the need for a strong military and wanting the adventure of space (though my fat ass is never going) I find it frustrating that we continually allow the same lack of vision, lack of determination of needs and waste of resources (human and financial) to continue.
Sometimes it takes a death in the family to get people to pay attention. Will they?
Came across this tonight on the L.A. Times site (http://www.calendarlive.com/cl-et-king5feb05.story -- registration required). It was written by a Times reporter who covered the Challenger launch in 1986:
"I remember the dazed, wounded expressions of NASA officials at a press briefing in the late afternoon. 'Hit with a two-by-four,' my notebook describes. At the time I thought it would be impossible to figure out what happened, what with the shuttle scattered across the seafloor in thousands of pieces. I was wrong. The NASA hierarchy, in fact, had known almost immediately what had gone wrong. Even as they spoke, that first afternoon, about impounding data and ruling out no possibility and all that, they knew. There had been, it would come out later, urgent prelaunch warnings from engineers about the effect of cold on the performance of crucial rubber rocket seals. Launchpad cameras had captured an ominous black puff of smoke from one of the rockets, indicating a seal had been blown. And in the last seconds of flight, computers picked up a telltale loss of power in one rocket.
On the drive to the ball fields Saturday, the car radio was filled with eyewitness reports from Texas, with experts running through the possible causes. They know, I said, thinking of the NASA inner circle. I would bet they knew almost from the moment communications with Columbia were lost over Texas what went wrong, maybe not with the precision necessary for public disclosure, but in their stomachs."
Deja vu. The reporter states in this piece exactly what I wrote in my post yesterday. EXACTLY.
And now we're hearing exactly the same words from NASA about the Columbia investigation as we did at the beginning of the Challenger "investigation" ("Even as they spoke, that first afternoon, about impounding data and ruling out no possibility and all that...").
They knew. I believe they knew even prior to Saturday. They know now. And they won't tell until -- and unless -- they are forced to.
Which may never happen. With Challenger, NASA's own video evidence conclusively documented the cause of the accident. (Even if it hadn't, no way would Feynmann have let them get away with anything. I miss that guy.) No such evidence exists for Columbia. The only visual evidence in this case is photographs and home video shot from 40 miles away showing a single vapor trail morphing into multiple smoke trails. Hardly conclusive at all. This time it will be much easier for NASA to spin this however they want to.
Today's announcement floating the theory that space junk may have caused the accident is, I think, the first product of this line of thinking. No way NASA could be held responsible for that, right? We'll have to wait and see whether NASA's feet are held to the fire in this investigation, but I remain cynical. To quote a well known space movie phrase, I have a bad feeling about this.
I see plenty of uninformed conspiracy talk in these comments, but I have to differ: I know enough of NASA workers (administration, engineering and grunts) in Houston and at the Cape to be certain that NASA couldn't keep a coverup working -- there would be those who'd toss their careers away to tell the truth.
The culture at NASA changed completely with Challenger -- today, any mention of safety issues gets attention. I won't insist that all NASA personnel are like that, but the majority are; if anything, they're too conservative about safety issues. I just can't see a coverup, and I'm prone to look for that sort of thing anyway.
About the sensor failures and not advising the astronauts: such "offscale low" failures are not uncommon during reentry, and the communications record shows that ground control was in fact discussing some of them with Commander Husband. The temperature increases were unusual, but AFAIK not outside operational limits until the very end.
I have plenty of my own problems with NASA, and I don't defend them often; but the accusations above are going way too far.Posted by Troy at February 5, 2003 01:30 AM
We shall see. I hope you're right.Posted by gojou at February 5, 2003 05:16 AM
I wasn't accusing anyone at NASA of a deliberate cover-up, but I am saying it is a "can do" culture that is at times pathologically overly optimistic (for example, the Shuttle's original cost, flight frequency, and safety estimates) and develops huge blind spots to potential problems. It's not that NASA deliberately overlooks certain things; instead, they simply don't see them because of their relentless optimism. NASA is also a government agency, meaning many decisions are based on politics instead of engineering (if LBJ hadn't been vice president, Clear Lake would still be a swamp) and the first instinct of managers is often to avoid taking the blame for a situation. The result is no more a "conspiracy" than a group of football fans reacting in the same way when their team scores a touchdown, but is nonetheless very real and has a big impact on the people involved.
I do believe there is an institutional culture at NASA that pressures people---in ways subtle and unconscious---to minimize problems, both real and potential. The authors of the in-flight report minimizing the impact of the foam/wing incident on launch were doubtlessly completely honest and sincere in their conclusions, but were their perceptions of the risk factors involved colored in ways they didn't even realize by the NASA culture? I think my analogy of the person who refuses to have suspicious lump checked out because of what the doctor might find still holds; it's not deception so much as it is denial.
Like gojou, I believe there were some in Mission Control Saturday morning who were fear the worst and, when the first sensor anomalies were detected, knew the flight was going to end badly. Those people weren't evil, but simply those who knew there was nothing that could be done even if their fears were justified and hoped for the best.
I'm not looking for NASA managers to be lynched over this, but I am looking for someone at NASA to finally say that replacement space transportation systems (including manned) are urgently needed and future accidents along the lines of Columbia and Challenger are inevitable. The best tribute we can make to the 14 who have died aboard the Shuttle is to make sure their deaths move us closer to the day of reliable, efficient access to space. They should not have died just to keep some politically connected Shuttle contractors rolling in the green.Posted by Harry at February 5, 2003 11:12 AM
The engineers are beginning to speak up. Thank God for the engineers.
"Debris Fear Not Heard at Key NASA Meeting", L.A. Times (registration required)
Some quotes from this article:
"The engineers told the Orlando Sentinel that the analysis -- presented eight days after the launch -- was guided by false assumptions and was colored by the grim realization that nothing could be done to save Columbia's seven astronauts in a worst-case scenario. Other concerns about the severity of the debris strike also were downplayed, according to some shuttle workers.
"Groups at NASA's Johnson Space Center, Kennedy Space Center and Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Ala., review films of every launch for possible debris hits. The day after Columbia's launch, stunned analysts stared at the video.
'My immediate reaction was 'Oh, my God. We have a problem,' ' a shuttle engineer said. 'It was the biggest hit I had ever seen the orbiter take.'
By Jan. 18, films of the impact were being screened for top shuttle officials. Some engineers suggested taking pictures of Columbia's belly."
"'These thermal analyses indicate possible localized structural damage but no burn-through and no safety of flight issue,' stated a daily summary report from the shuttle's Mission Evaluation Room issued Jan. 28.
Some, however, felt the finding was flawed.
Analysts assumed that the tank debris that struck Columbia consisted entirely of foam insulation. The possibility that harder tank materials or ice were involved was not considered. There also was concern the tile team's analysis of the depth of the damage was wrong because it did not fully account for the large amount of debris that hit.
'There were holes in the presentation,' said the shuttle engineer who heard it. 'They said, 'Well, we'll get to that later but they never did.''"
So the truth begins to come out. Troy was correct, thankfully, and NASA won't be able to feign complete ignorance. It can only get more interesting from here.
(BTW: Troy's comments addressing the inability to maintain a coverup at NASA may prove correct, but that doesn't mean it wasn't considered. It's the nature of government bureaucracy to do so.)
I don't fault NASA for what happened -- yet. I'm starting to think NASA may have been negligent, once again, in allowing the Shuttle to launch under conditions that were too cold. I strongly suspect ice played the defining role in this disaster. I've not yet found temperature info for the morning of the launch or the previous night, but I clearly remember news accounts of extraordinarily cold temperatures in Florida during the same time frame as the launch. If this line of thinking pans out, then we have two hard data points to show that cold weather and Shuttle launches don't mix. The question will them become whether it was too cold that morning to allow the launch to proceed -- a question the Challenger investigation should have answered definitively.
Beyond that, I fully realize there was no way the astronauts would make it home safely given the scenario they faced. I don't criticize NASA for not taking steps to try to get them home -- there were no such steps to take. My criticism centers on NASA's post-disaster handling of the situation -- NASA should have being more forthright from the beginning. Every day it becomes more clear that the information NASA released to the public in the hours immediately following the disaster was patently false. The American public -- who pay for our space program -- and the astronauts -- who paid even more dearly -- deserve better.
On a side note: Either Dittemore's showing some cojones or he's being set up to take the fall:
"In an apparent effort to deflect possible criticism of her and other management-team members, program manager Dittemore said Monday that all responsibility ultimately should rest with him.
Dittemore has a reputation as one of the most safety-conscious program managers in shuttle history.
'It is my personal commitment that I don't do anything that would jeopardize the crew or the vehicle,' Dittemore said Monday. 'I did not chair the mission-management team...But I was kept informed and knowledgeable at all times.'"
I have to respect the statement regarding Dittemore's personal commitment to Shuttle program safety and his "the buck stops here" attitude. Perhaps his ineffectiveness as investigation spokesperson stems from the extreme anguish and sorrow the job must entail. It can't be easy.
I thought this line of thinking was instructive: "Now, 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?"
This is set up as a classic "group-think" situation. In the back of their minds, everybody understands the shuttle is screwed if there's a big tile problem, and you can't prove it anyway, so everybody ends up helping convince each other that there's no problem.
I'm in the minority, but I still think that they should have tried harder to find out how badly the tiles were damaged. Never underestimate human ingenuity in a pinch, and if they'd checked early on, there would have been maybe two weeks+ to put something together.
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