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Hindsight, Twenty Twenty

Over at The Corner, Rod Dreher has what he calls "big news" about Columbia, with a link to a Florida Today article, that resurrects the notion that the Columbia astronauts could have been saved, had NASA been more diligent in gathering data and understanding the true situation.

An internal NASA study done at the request of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board indicates it may have been possible to mount a rescue mission that could have had a chance of saving Columbia astronauts.

A senior investigator familiar with the study told Florida Today the plan would have to have been predicated on an immediate post-launch recognition by NASA that the shuttle was so badly crippled it could not make it home.

That would have allowed the crew to strictly conserve its life-sustaining supplies, hunker down and wait for the rushed launched of shuttle Atlantis, which was on its way to being ready for liftoff March 1 on another flight.

Atlantis' crew then could have rendezvoused with Columbia and tried to bring the crew aboard through a series of daring spacewalks.

We'll never know if this Hollywoodesque scenario would have worked. Frankly, it takes a great leap of faith to think it would have. But it was never even considered, because NASA managers failed to thoroughly examine the extent of Columbia's damage.

I've written on this subject before, and pointed out that there was the potential here for a flight director's nightmare, and there certainly may have been a subconscious reluctance to look for bad news, because they knew that broken tiles meant a lost Orbiter and dead astronauts. The problem here was not the Shuttle design per se, but the fact that our orbital infrastructure is essentially non existent, and we sent Columbia off into the wilderness, where a breakdown meant death.

That was the reality, as NASA understood it. Was it "possible" to somehow rescue the Columbia crew, given early understanding of the problem, and a sped-up Atlantis launch, and heroics on orbit?


Was it realistic, or sensible, to make such an attempt?

Almost certainly not, but that's where we have to put astronauts' lives in the balance against, well, other things.

Many have compared this to what happened a third of a century ago, and claim that NASA missed an "Apollo XIII moment." But that's an oversimplistic comparison--there are many differences between Apollo XIII and Columbia.

First, the obvious one, of course, is that in the case of the latter, Houston didn't know "we have a problem" until the vehicle started to come apart over the western United States. The critique here implies that that's the only difference, and that had they known right after launch, the crew could have been saved, as it was then. This ignores several other significant differences.

Apollo XIII was fortunate enough to have a great deal of margin, in both time and equipment. Had the oxygen tank exploded on the way back from the Moon, the crew would have died, regardless of derring do and heroics on the ground. Their vehicle was essentially in good shape, and didn't require repair--just reconfiguration. And for all of that, it was still a very close thing. While we should be thankful that we could save that crew, it's had a bad side effect of presenting NASA as being ominipotent in the public mind, and capable of overcoming any adversity (despite abundant evidence to the contrary in the three decades since). The fact was, it takes nothing away from the skill and brilliance of actions at mission control to say that they were also damned lucky.

We now know that Columbia was badly broken during launch, and that the fate of the crew and vehicle were sealed once the decision was made to press to main engine cutoff, and orbit. They might have been saved by a trans-Atlantic abort, but there was no time at all to gather the information to make that decision, which occurs during launch itself. There was nothing in the vehicle that could be reconfigured, or duct taped, that would repair what was a broken primary and vital subsystem (the thermal protection system)--one that absolutely had to work in order to bring the vehicle back.

Some will argue (and apparently do, according to the article linked) that the vehicle could have been reconfigured to buy more time, but that's not sufficient, because of the next, perhaps even more important difference, because it raises very uncomfortable ethical issues.

Apollo XIII had nothing to lose.

Other than lost sleep and fatique among mission controllers, there was no cost or risk to doing everything possible to bring that command module back from its misbegotten journey. Because all of the resources needed were already (at least in theory) aboard the vehicle, there was no need to send anything else up to it.

What the second guessers are proposing in the case of the Columbia disaster was to hasten the launch of Atlantis. Even they admit that without doing this, the chances of a rescue were probably non-existent. That means that we would have had to launch (and risk) another vehicle (one third of our remaining fleet, not counting the doomed Columbia) and, at a minimum, another two-person crew.

One of the reasons that we fly Shuttles so seldom is that the turnaround process takes a long time. Since the loss of Challenger, the procedures to do so have become even more stringent, further reducing the flight rate. Prior to Challenger, NASA was still deluding themselves that they might eventually get to a flight rate of a couple dozen per year. Since then, due to increased safety concerns, six in a year is a good year, and many years have been less. Rushing to launch is exactly the opposite of the philosophy of maximizing flight safety, and many might argue that it would in itself be playing Russian roulette with few empty chambers.

So here are the options, assuming that NASA had been as diligent in getting the data as its critics would have had them do.

1) Let them come in as they are, and cross your fingers. This was essentially the option taken, except with fingers in normal configuration (that is, always slightly crossed, Shuttle flights being what they are, but digits twisted no more than normal) because they didn't have the data.

2) Attempt to do an on-orbit repair with available crew and equipment. Despite Apollo XIII fantasies, this was never a realistic option. Even if they had the equipment and materials available (they didn't), it still would have necessitated finger crossing on a planetary scale.

3) Try to extend life support as long as possible, put together a tile repair kit of some kind on the ground, change the next Atlantis mission to go repair the vehicle, launch it on or close to schedule, and bring it back with a minimal crew. Oh, by the way, this probably results in dead crew, but offers the possibility of returning the vehicle, albeit at the risk of two more astronauts. This is probably the one that makes the most sense, given the value of the hardware, but would be totally politically unacceptable.

4) The option suggested by the critics: extend life support as long as possible, and plan to launch Atlantis in time to get there before they run out of air. This is the highest risk, because now you're rushing the launch. In other words, we've probably already lost a quarter of our Shuttle fleet. The crew is likely going to die regardless of what's done. But in our determination to save them, we're going to risk a third of the remaining fleet and more astronauts.

The interesting question to me is not which of the four options have the highest probability of getting the crew back (that's probably option four), but which one has the highest probability of ending the manned space program?--a subject that is rarely very far from a senior Johnson Space Center official's mind.

Option 4 is a real roll of the dice. If it works, NASA is a hero again, a la Apollo XIII. If it fails (worst case, Atlantis is lost due to the rush), we've lost several astronauts, and half of the Shuttle fleet. Is the Shuttle program viable with only two vehicles, particularly given the circumstances in which the others were lost?

On the other hand, having lost the crew and the vehicle, few people are talking seriously about ending manned space flight or even just the Shuttle program (though some, inevitably, are).

I'm not smart enough to predict what the public reaction would have been to any of these scenarios, and I doubt that anyone else is, either, though many no doubt think they are.

There's an old saying that it's easier to get forgiveness than permission. In a sense, by remaining institutionally ignorant of the vehicle's plight (whether willfully or subconsciously), NASA spared itself a horrible dilemma, and one that they must now be grateful that they didn't have to confront, painful as the loss of Columbia and crew must be.

[Update at 4:21 PM PDT]

Here's a more detailed account from MSNBC.

But again, they miss the point.

The chairman acknowledged that any rescue mission would have been risky not only for Columbia?s seven crew members but also for Atlantis? four crew members. But he drew a parallel to military operations, where it is routine to risk scores of people to try to rescue one downed pilot.

?It?s kind of a contract we have with the people who go into harm?s way,? the retired admiral said. ?NASA and the nation have that same contract with astronauts, and it is my opinion, and from my personal background, that if there had been any erring, we would have erred on the side of taking the chance and going after them.?

He said astronauts would have been ?standing out in the hallways to volunteer? ? a sentiment that was echoed by former astronaut Norman Thagard.

?The astronaut corps would certainly sign up for a mission like that,? Thagard told NBC News. ?You don?t want to leave your buddies stranded.?

No argument, but this misses the point, because of the disastrous nature of our space program, in which we have such a trivial amount of activity that we have zero robustness in the system. If we only had three helicopters in the entire Pentagon inventory, we'd think twice about risking one for a rescue mission, regardless of how willing the troops were to go rescue comrades. It's not risking more astronaut's lives that's the issue--it's risking another orbiter, which, if you lose it, will result in having only two left. Until we develop a policy that doesn't put us in such an untenable position, our space policy will continue to be an expensive failure.

Posted by Rand Simberg at May 23, 2003 12:59 PM
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This might sound niave, but why wasn't it standard operating procedure to have two shuttles ready. Basically the Columbia waits until Atlantis is ready. If there is an accident Atlantis is ready. If no accident Atlantis waits until the Columbia or Endeavor is ready before launching.

The amount of prep time should be the same, its just a matter of having space to store a ready to go orbitor. Seems like a pretty basic sort of thing if you have a fleet or orbitors.

Posted by ruprecht at May 23, 2003 03:41 PM

That would require a major investment in facilities (crawlers and pads), and it would tie up an orbiter that would have to be outfitted for rescue, and couldn't be prepared for a nominal mission. The bottom line is that it would make a very expensive program even more so.

Posted by Rand Simberg at May 23, 2003 04:03 PM

Having a "rescue" shuttle available means that you would be going throught twice the expense of preparing for a mission, then throwing away half of all your work. Doing that several times a year. Also, after a few dozen successful flights, the people who are preparing the "rescue" shuttle will not be putting the same effort into their tasks as they would if the vehicle was going to be used. The same for the "rescue" crew. Sorry, but that's just human nature.

As Rand points out, the problem isn't not having a recuse shuttle available, but not having very many flights. Imagine if NASA's 1980s fantasies came through, and there was a launch every two weeks. There would have to be a few more orbiters, and there'd always be one or two within days of being ready to launch. You'd have a pilot corps with at least a couple astronauts having commanded a dozen missions each, and at least a couple of flights with last minute subsititutions. No need for extensive training for each unique flight. Hell, there might even have been an overlapping double launch and rendevous mission around 1994 just to see if there were any gotchas in bringing two orbiters close together.

Rather than the panic of "oh my god, we've got to rescue them now!", a rescue would be a two step process-- send up a flight for the crew and to check things out up close. Powerdown the damaged orbiter. Then a few weeks later send up a second flight to attempt repairs and salvage the orbiter. Because let's face it, as Rand points out, those things are just too valuable to just throw away because there's a small crack that could be fixed .

Also having multiple launching "agencies" would help too-- if NASA had a sudden need, it could turn to the Air Force or Pan American Spaceways as per their "mutual aid" agreements like the ones fire and police departments make.

It's almost paradoxical, but the best way to do a future rescue is to have lots of activity going on, which in turn makes a rescue not a big deal.

(Which is the most disapointing thing about the supposed Columbia rescue scenario-- the deliberate destruction of the empty orbiter. Instead the thing to do would be to try a controlled rentry to Edwards-- any breakup would be well out over the Pacific, and any crash would be on the Edwards airstrip. Sending it to a crash, if anything, shows how screwed up NASA is.)

Posted by Raoul Ortega at May 23, 2003 10:42 PM

Great hisotry, analysis and summation of options faced by NASA!

I often wonder what's happening with our space programs between human or technological firsts/disasters.

Posted by Greg Williams at May 24, 2003 06:33 AM

Without proper infrastructure, even LEO will remain a very dangerous place for humans and expensive machines.
The Columbia was essentiallty sentenced to death on June 7th , 1962

Posted by at May 24, 2003 08:20 AM

Perhaps if the OSP (OSC?) becomes a reality, one could be kept in reserve as a rescue/repair vehicle.

One of the enhanced Apollo type capsules could be launched unmanned and dock (Providing an airlock is standard equipment on the shuttle) along with retrieving the crew. It could carry seven Astronauts and is should be possible to hold future crew sizes to no more than that that number.

It could also carry up any necessary repair supplies to assist in retrieving the cripppled orbiter or preserving the orbiter until an organized rescue attempt can be made.

As far as de-orbiting the shuttle unmanned, how about using a dry lake bed in western australia? That would greatly minimize any danger to the public while affording a reasonable chance at vehicle recovery. That areas is so sparsely populated that is isn't even funny!

Posted by Mike Puckett at May 24, 2003 09:22 AM

June 7, 1962? I agree with your point, but what's the significance of that date?

Posted by Jeff Dougherty at May 24, 2003 10:05 AM

On june, 7th, 1962, Wernher von Braun finally gave in to Langley's pressure over method of Moon landing.
Had the EOR ( Earth orbit rendezvous ) been chosen over LOR, Apollo program would probably have left some LEO infrastructure behind, and the entire manned space program would _perhaps_ have gotten off on a better foot. LOR gave us flags, footprints, couple of rocks and some museum pieces.

Posted by at May 24, 2003 10:53 AM

Dunno...the EOR von Braun was proposing was essentially "let's build a Direct Ascent ship in two launches instead of one". It would probably have involved a couple of Saturn V launched, one unmanned and one manned for redezvous- no space station assembly point or anything infrastructure-related like that. Or more likely, it would have been so complex and expensive that the whole program gets cancelled when it can't make the deadline.

Not sure what the pivotal date is, but probably earlier than that.

Posted by Jeff Dougherty at May 24, 2003 11:47 AM


I would like to run the scenario differently. Let's start with some assumptions:

1. The lift off films give an inkling of a problem
2. Ground and space photography indicate damage
3. They decide to do a space walk for better examination
They have contingency spacesuits
They jury rig a twenty foot pole with a digital camera on the end

They now have a good idea of how big a hole they are in. At this point, NASA will accelerate the flow for Atlantis. The Columbia crew will shut down as much power as possible and get in their bunks hoping to conserve consumables. The big problem is that their CO2 scrubbers will saturate. The NASA managers will look at the risk for a rushed Atlantis launch and the time left before CO2 poisoning. They know they are in a bind.

Now I change the scenario

The NASA people go to the Pegasus people. They say: "Take GALEX off that rocket. We've got a different payload." Pegasus can carry around 1000 pounds of payload. A pressure can(s) are put together. The provisions include CO2 scrubbers. A solar panel for electrical augmentation. Extra food (say 800 calories per person per day for 30 days). And a space maneuvering package with a repair kit. The kit could consist of ablative goop to fill the damaged area along and maybe just a chunk of shaped inconel to cover the breach.

NASA takes about a week to put it together. The L1011 launches the Pegasus and its rescue payload. The can doesn't have rendezvous capability but the shuttle does. It simply flies up to the can and astronauts in the bay catch it.

Now the people on Columbia can do two things. They have provisions to stretch waiting out the time necessary prepare Atlantis or they can attempt a repair and come try for home. A rescue would be preferable, but if NASA deemed that the foam problem puts Atlantis at risk also, they could try to spacewalk repair and re-enter. That's the way I see it.

Posted by Rod Kendrick at May 24, 2003 01:55 PM

Mr Simberg,
I have seen a lot of questions as to why Columbia couldn't go 'up' to the ISS (and which have been answered), but I'd like to ask if there was any possibility of using the Soyuz 'lifeboat' to go 'down' to the shuttle - get Columbia into as high an orbit as possible and send the Soyuz down on three trips to get the Columbia crew. If (and I understand this is a VERY big if ) it worked, the crew would have been able to hold out in relative safety aboard the ISS until Atlantis took off on a normal schedule, and in the meantime that gives NASA some time to figure out a way to get Columbia back in one piece.
Would there have been any hope for that scenario at all?

Best regards,
Mike Kozlowski

Posted by Mike Kozlowski at May 24, 2003 09:49 PM

Would there have been any hope for that scenario at all?

No, not within current laws of physics.

Posted by at May 24, 2003 10:48 PM

What is it about semiconductor society that we have this can't do attitude where vaccuum tube guys seemed to be able to get the job done?

Who the hell decided to write off the lives of these astronauts because there was nothing that could be done anyway so let's all just bury our heads in the sand.

They certainly could have inspected and had some idea of the potential damage. Even if EVA was out of the question (why not?) somewhere there are optics that could have trained themselves on the area.

We could get supplies to them, the shuttle can manuever. The only real question is do you abandon the Columbia or not once the option becomes available.

I could understand if nobody suspected the potential for disaster, but that's not what we're hearing.

I'm so angry about this I want to swear. What the freak is wrong with the world today?

Posted by ken anthony at May 25, 2003 12:21 AM

>>Dunno...the EOR von Braun was proposing was essentially "let's build a Direct Ascent ship in two launches instead of one".
Actually, no. Both von Braun and H.H. Koelle were lobbying for some kind of permanent outpost on earth orbit, for fuelling and checking out lunar vehicles. And possibly vehicles to other planets later on. Initially, studies were done to use spent upper stages of rockets to start building such a shelter. If nothing else, it would have left behind expertise for refuelling the vehicles in space.
And the pivotal date was exactly that. That was the day when after six-hour meeting at Marshall von Braun stunned everybody with his unexcpected announcement of support for LOR. He never explained his motives, but this was probably his one and only moment of lack of his otherwise so brilliant foresight.

Posted by at May 25, 2003 02:45 AM

Mike Kozlowski asked "...if there was any possibility of using the Soyuz 'lifeboat' to go 'down' to the shuttle...."

To explain someone's snidely-anonymous comment: the problem isn't so much the altitude difference, as the difference in orbital planes. Columbia was launched into an orbit inclined ~39 degrees to the equator, while the ISS's orbit is inclined 51.6 degrees; Columbia (or the Soyuz) would have had to change its 17,500 mph orbital velocity by 12.6 degrees to get into the same plane as the ISS, and that angular change requires nearly a quarter of the orbital velocity -- far more maneuvering capability than any present spacecraft has (Shuttle's OMS engines can provide about 1250 ft/sec change, less than a quarter of that necessary; the Soyuz has only about half the maneuvering capability of Shuttle).

Posted by Troy at May 25, 2003 08:11 AM

Side question regarding the "Atlantis rescue" scenario that I don't believe has been asked: since in this case you *know* that the foam falling off the ET is a problem (you have the photos of Columbia's damaged TPS on your desk), can you justify sending up a ship with known, unresolved problems and hoping for the best? If Atlantis ends up in the same fix as Columbia, then what?

Ken: I'm as angry as you are about the destruction of Columbia and the attitudes that engendered it. NASA does indeed have a civil-service culture that seems to have the attitude that nothing can possibly be worth doing if it costs less than twenty billion dollars, and to be excessively concerned with hierarchy and defending people's independent fiefdoms at the cost of the agencies' overall efforts. The targets for our anger, though, are not the people who gave the "GO for reentry" decision. They are the managers, politicians, and administrators who participated in the channeling of our national space efforts into a single system- not goal, but system- at the expense of everything else.

Sean O'Keefe's "There would have been no end to the efforts" speech to the contrary, this seems to have been one of those situations where it doesn't matter how much effort you put into a problem. When your only manned space vehicle can't launch until two weeks after the air runs out on Columbia, and you have a margin of a few days to (maybe) slap together some kind of blivet and launch it, the problem isn't with the people who pick the best choice off of a list of bad ones. The problem is with the people who made sure that there would be no good choices on the list.

By "the vacuum tube generation" I assume you mean the engineers who did Apollo, and in many respects you're right. NASA's culture has changed fundamentally since the 1960s, and I agree that it has not been for the better. However, even the Apollo 13 team would not have been able to do anything if Odyssey's heat shield had been cracked, or if the explosion had happened on Apollo 8 without a LM. Sometimes, your corporate culture and attitudes don't matter, and this seems to have been one of them. The time when attitude would have mattered was back in the 1970s and 80s, when the decisions that led to this point were being made.

Apologies for the rant, and no offense is intended. But I am concerned that in the flurry to figure out what engineers knew at any given second during the mission, the management and political decisions that led to this juncture may go uneexamined. That would be a real disservice to the astronauts and would open the door to this happening again.

Posted by Jeff Dougherty at May 25, 2003 11:46 AM

Rand - A TAL might not have been an option. Some TAL aborts have higher loads (thermal and stress) than a normal reentry.

Posted by Edmund Hack at May 25, 2003 07:29 PM

Key word being "some."

Some others might in theory have been an option, but of course, the reality was that there was no way to acquire the needed data and make a decision until they were already on orbit.

Posted by Rand Simberg at May 25, 2003 09:10 PM

...the problem isn't so much the altitude difference, as the difference in orbital planes. Columbia was launched into an orbit inclined ~39 degrees to the equator, while the ISS's orbit is inclined 51.6 degrees; Columbia (or the Soyuz) would have had to change its 17,500 mph orbital velocity by 12.6 degrees to get into the same plane as the ISS...

That's a best case, and extremely unlikely. Conceivably, because of differences in node, it could be a much larger angle. Even two orbits with the same inclination can be in dramatically different orbital planes. For instance, one could have two forty-five degree inclination orbits, with their nodes a hundred and eighty degrees apart, which would require a plane change of ninety degrees.

Posted by Rand Simberg at May 26, 2003 11:06 AM

A little off topic, but along the lines of NASA decision making. I just got back from the 2003 ISDC. At one of the talks Warren James stated that it costs more to recover/repair and re-use the SRBs than it would, just to let them sink into the gulf and buy new ones. If true then why do we do it? (Just to say they're re-usable.)
Also Marianne Dyson mentioned on a policy panel that it had cost NASA more to mothball the X-38 program than it would have cost to complete it.

Posted by Shawn at May 26, 2003 04:56 PM

To the degree that that's true (SRB refurb costs), it's because the flight rate is much lower than that anticipated when originally designed. There's a high overhead cost associated with the recovery ships, etc. Had NASA known how little they'd end up flying, the trade would have indicated an expendable first stage, rather than refurbishable.

As far as Marianne's comment, it's misleading. It may have cost more to mothball than to complete the X-38 prototypes, but they were only prototypes. Operational vehicles would have cost much more (and been relatively worthless, given that the mission requirement for them was nonsensical).

Posted by Rand Simberg at May 26, 2003 07:46 PM

A generic, tested, and reliable operational CRV that can be parked in LEO indefinitely would be a very good asset to have in any future space development. Call it a start of the LEO infrastructure.
X-38 "only" went overboard with long cross range, 7 people and fully automated requirements.

Posted by at May 27, 2003 06:17 AM


I appreciate your well thought comments, yet have a fundamental difference of opinion with the very basic premise implied by some of them. It goes to the heart of my comment about the can do attitude. We treat NASA as if it were a totally ballistic artillery shell, fired in the 70's with no ability to be corrected. Yet, with every failure we have the opportunity to make political inroads that could lead to changes (or scrap it entirely so that only the military and commercial options exist.) Many people think that NASA actually does purchase from the private sector when we all know that's really not the case (but it's certainly arguable.)

Has the NASA administration become so insulated that it can not be fixed? Then we should unite in trying to scrap the whole thing. But if they are not so untouchable, then can they not be moved into a better direction?

Closer to the issue, if there was suspected shuttle damage on liftoff this is what makes me angry... no follow up. Sometimes there is no solution to a problem. However, it is absolutely, completely, [add string of about 10 more adjectives in a similar vein] and without a doubt inexcusable that:

1. No apparent attempt was made (or perhaps it was simply an insufficient attempt) to ascertain the extent of the damage and make some (to any degree) prediction of danger.

2. None. Until step one is done, nothing follows.

I'm angry because when step 1 is abridged because of the attitude that nothing can be done, a question that can't be reasonably answered until step 2, then we have a fundamental and systemic problem.

I think that problem is one of attitude. We can laugh at the 'our gang' idea that individuals joining together can solve big problems with less than ideal solutions. Today however, it seems we invest all the decisions in unapproachable points of failure (which nameless administrator *is* responsible, hmmm?) that are unaccountable for unacknowedged mistakes.

Yes, it's a civil service mentality. But it's also a very un-american attitude. At least it would have been considered so fifty years ago when we were willing to explore what we could or could not do.

In the Apollo era, I imagine they would have spent a little bit more resources on step 1 leading to a whole lot of effort (at least on the ground before giving up) on step 2.

I apologize, but not for my anger. I think it's justified and if others were as angry, something could be done.


Posted by ken anthony at May 27, 2003 08:10 AM

"That would require a major investment in facilities (crawlers and pads), and it would tie up an orbiter that would have to be outfitted for rescue, and couldn't be prepared for a nominal mission. The bottom line is that it would make a very expensive program even more so.
Posted by Rand Simberg at May 23, 2003 04:03 PM"

I am not referring to a 'rescue shuttle' but a standard shuttle. The next shuttle ready to go, configured for its regularly scheduled mission. Facilities, crawlers and pads would be a significant issue I agree but that might be worth it assuming they'd planned this way back when the program started.

Preparing the next flight before the current flight launches does not take any extra effort, only space to store the shuttle that is ondeck. The idea would provide flexibility if things went wrong.

In understand why they don't do this now, but why didn't they start the shuttle program out with this simple redundancy built in. I thought NASA is all about redundancy and safety and it has to be cheaper to build a new crawler and vehicle assembly building than it is to deal with the political and economic fallout of a shuttle disaster?

Posted by ruprecht at May 27, 2003 09:33 AM


I agree with you that there need to be major changes at NASA, and I hope that there will be. I also agree with you that the attitude at NASA is the wrong one, but I see as the major contribution it made as the total lack of alternatives rather than a failure to seek on-orbit imaging of Columbia.

I suppose I'm really frustrated here. The media seem to be obsessing over the idea that we could have just-barely-by-the-skin-of-our-teeth gotten a rescue shuttle or a supply ship up to Columbia, but nobody seems to be interested in asking why, fifty years after the Space Age began, we were able to paint ourselves into a corner like this. Why do all of our launch vehicles require long setup times- not necessarily Shuttle, but our expendable launch vehicles as well? To me, that requires an examination of all the decision-making made up to this point that has systematically mismanaged just about every sucessor launch system except for LockMart and Boeing cranking out Delta (n) and Atlas (n+1).

That does diffuse responsibility, which does raise the troubling specter of pushing off all the problems onto people who have left the agency while ignoring what's wrong now. On the other hand, I don't know if I'd be satisfied with seeing all the Shuttle managers run out of NASA either- some of them were undoubtably negligent, but ultimately that could turn into just as much of a whitewash.

By the way: if I gave the impression I thought that there was something wrong with your anger- sorry. That was certainly not what I intended.

And in the way of opening up another can of worms: what now? In the short term, it seems like the Shuttles will have to fly again, but it seems equally apparent to me that we are going to need a replacement to continue human presence in space. And in a related question, what should we be doing in space? My take: NASA should be testing new propulsion technologies a la Deep Space 1 and funding a "fly-off" type competition to encourage construction of low-cost RLVs. Anybody else?

Posted by Jeff Dougherty at May 27, 2003 12:11 PM

Are we assuming nothing can go wrong with a ?rescue? shuttle? Who will rescue the rescue crew?

Posted by John Harlan at May 27, 2003 01:08 PM

The OSP is the only thing we have in the pipeline to replace the shuttle at this time. The sub-orbitals have allot of promise but, once they?ve proven themselves on sub-orbital missions, they?d still need to be scaled-up to reach orbit. The question, I have is, can NASA build the OSP? They started out wanting to combine the crew return & crew transfer vehicles. Now I heard at the ISDC that some in NASA were trying to add a limited cargo capacity also.
A press release issued today by The Planetary Society, the Association of Space Explorers, and the American Astronautical Society listed as one of its points that ?Crew and cargo should be transported separately to increase flexibility, reduce cost and reduce risk associated with human space exploration.? This confirms what I?d heard and makes me wonder if anyone at NASA has learned anything from the shuttle program. I thought that the KISS principal was the first rule of engineering but from here it doesn?t look like its being applied at NASA.

Posted by Shawn at May 27, 2003 05:11 PM

Around the time of the accident I worked out a rescue scenario using Atlantis. You can read about it here.

While it is intriguing to think about what could have been, it is much more important to consider what we do now in light of what was learned. To that end I address what I believe to be a crucial existing problem that is easily solved.

The Real Problem with the Rescue Scenarios:
The big problem is not the rescue. It is making the decision to abandon the science mission (with serious ramifications), at its very beginning, for only a "possible" problem with the tiles. NOBODY would make that call. There just wasn't enough evidence of a serious problem and NOBODY would sanction putting astronauts outside just to take a look.

But that raises a BIG question. Why didn't the flight controllers know the status of the tiles during the launch? The answer: because they aren't looking! One of the things that comes out of the Columbia accident is the realization that the flight controllers are literally in the dark when it comes to the status of the tiles during launch. But it doesn't have to be that way.

Proposal for Future Missions:
I propose that an array of small, lightweight cameras be installed on the central tank to observe all critical shuttle tiles during launch and transmit that data to mission control. While we are at it,we should also be looking at other critical items such as the solids, etc.

If a camera system such as this had been in place on Columbia's tank, it could have given the flight controllers the confidence to call for an abort to Spain. They wouldn't have to wait a couple of days for an analysis of the unknown. And it is the unknown that makes a decision tough. Seeing the damage up close and in detail makes the decision for them. It's a no-brainer. And if there is a problem they know about it immediately. The camera system would provide the necessary data, in real-time, to know the precise status of the tiles throughout the launch right up to the time the Shuttle enters orbit.

Posted by Bill Simon at May 28, 2003 01:19 AM

Its already been said before but NASA shuttle folks grew to complacent about the fact that insulation was shearing off and striking the orbiters. Its quite apparent now that all the launch station cameras needs to be up and running at optimal viewing conditions.

The person that is in charge of ordering an abort to orbit during the launch needs to have their finger hovering over the abort button and watching closely to make damn sure nothing appears to hit the orbiter at all during ascent. And also, we need to find out what the exact impact pressure point is that causes the carbon carbon panels to fracture and the t-seals to become damaged. And sensors to be placed in the wings so that in the event a strike does occur that is forceful enough to break anyting on the time protection system an abort signal is automatically tripped.

I mean, they cancel launches in Florida when the weather is bad at any of the launch abort landing strips across the atlantic. If ever there was a moment to use those contigency locations was in the event something is visibly seen hitting the orbiter during ascent.

Posted by Hefty at May 29, 2003 09:48 AM

It's not that simple, because aborts carry their own risks. There's no risk in delaying a launch, only cost, but there's a good chance of losing a vehicle in an abort, so one has to weight the chances of getting home from orbit against the chances of a succesful abort. That's not something that can easily be done in real time.

Posted by Rand Simberg at May 29, 2003 10:39 AM


Agreed. Wisdom requires that we both look back to learn and forward because that's the only thing we can hope to change (Time cops aside.) Your absolutely right about the need for diversity in our approaches. The big lie they've sold us is that the costs are so high only a rich country can afford to do it.

Long term I'm not worried. Assuming the economy begins to grow again I think some companies in the next 20 years will begin to test the property rights waters and then things will begin to explode (that's the right word, right?)

Short term we will do what we always do. Waste money on non-optimum strategies that you and I are forced to pay for. And people will die that shouldn't have, rather than people dying as a result of acceptable risks. Either way a certain amount of fatality is to be expected, but it's the careless (and institutionalized) deaths that upset me.

I'd like to see a lot of NASA money diverted to X-prizes. Let the space race be between different companies rather than just countries.

I took no offense.

Posted by ken anthony at May 30, 2003 07:30 AM

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