Losses and Aviation Safety

Here’s how NASA could have tried to rescue the crew of Space Shuttle Columbia if they had known the spacecraft was going to disintegrate on re-entry

If NASA had known ahead of time Columbia was going to disintegrate on re-entry, how would they have gotten the astronauts down?

On Jan. 16, 2003 space shuttle Columbia left Earth for its 28th and last flight. Even though at the time building the International Space Station was the main goal of the shuttle program, STS-107 (Columbia’s final mission) emphasized pure research, according to Space.com.

The seven-member crew — Rick Husband, commander; Michael Anderson, payload commander; David Brown, mission specialist; Kalpana Chawla, mission specialist; Laurel Clark, mission specialist; William McCool, pilot; and Ilan Ramon, payload specialist from the Israeli Space Agency — had spent 24 hours a day doing science experiments in two shifts.

The seven astronauts on board Columbia were killed on Feb. 1, 2003 when the space shuttle broke up while it was returning to Earth.

If NASA had known ahead of time Columbia was going to disintegrate on re-entry, how would they have gotten the astronauts down?

‘There was actually an exercise done to work this out, at the direction of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB),’ Andy Burns, Student of Space History and Flight Officer / Aviator at United States Navy (USN), says on Quora.

‘While Columbia was on-orbit, Atlantis was undergoing preparations for a March 1 launch as STS-114. The CAIB exercise determined that it would have been possible, albeit a difficult and demanding race against time, to launch Atlantis on a rescue mission.

‘Columbia would have faced a 30-day mission limit, determined by its supply of Lithium Hydroxide scrubbers used to remove CO2 from the cabin atmosphere, and additional limits posed by food, water, and power supplies. Depending on when the decision was made to launch a rescue, Atlantis could have rendezvoused with Columbia as early Mission Day 27 – with the launch prep and flight crews working a brutal 24/7 schedule and no room for error or delays, but it was at least feasible.

‘In the CAIB’s scenario, Atlantis would have launched with a four-person crew of two pilots, and two mission specialists to conduct the EVAs. Most likely the STS-114 Commander Eileen Collins and Pilot Jim Kelly, would have been assigned, as they were already trained, experienced, and ready to fly. The two Mission Specialists might have been the original crew of Stephen Robinson and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, but NASA might have subbed in more experienced spacewalkers, given the very short time to train. The CAIB exercise determined a list of seven mission specialists who could have been assigned, but this list hasn’t been published.’

Actual flight of STS-114, which launched in July 2005 aboard Discovery. Left to right: MS Steve Robinson, CDR Eileen Collins, PLT Jim Kelly

Burns continues;

‘Meanwhile, Columbia’s crew would have powered down the orbiter and adopted a max-conservation routine, essentially staying in their bunks as much as possible to conserve oxygen and minimize CO2.

‘Once Atlantis rendezvoused with Columbia, the two EVA astronauts would have connected the orbiters with an extendable boom. They would transfer two EVA suits to Columbia, meeting two already-suited Columbia astronauts, and helping them transfer to Atlantis. Presumably the two would be Columbia’s pilots, Willie McCool and Rick Husband, who could then spell Collins and Kelly at the controls, who by that point would have been manually station-keeping on Columbia for as long as nine hours.

‘The remaining astronauts would relay the EVA suits back and forth, in a grueling 8–9-hour spacewalk. Finally, the last two crewmen would have set up Columbia for control from Houston. Atlantis would back away and prepare for reentry. Unlike later orbiters, Columbia could not be landed remotely, so she would be set up for deorbit and a final fiery reentry, presumably to Point Nemo in the South Pacific, the most remote spot on earth, and where the majority of controlled deorbitings are targeted.’

Burns concludes;

‘A Columbia rescue mission would have been the most monumentally difficult and epic space mission in history, and it would have required absolutely everything going right to bring the crew home safely. But NASA has shown time and again its ability to rise to the occasion and bring its formidable engineering and piloting expertise to bear. Instead, the worst instincts of the agency – to micromanage and engage in wishful thinking instead of clear-eyed analysis – doomed the crew.’

On Feb. 1, 2003, two RNLAF (Royal Netherlands Air Force) pilots were training on an AH-64D Longbow Apache helicopter out of Fort Hood, Texas at about 100 feet above ground when they witnessed and recorded with the attack chopper’s onboard camera the dramatic footage of the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrating on its way back to the Kennedy Space Center at the end of STS-107 mission.

Photo credit: NASA and US DoD

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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  • At the time an American rescue was deemed to be extraordinarily risky. But there was another far more viable alternative.

    The Soviet Union had a vehicle capable of doing the rescue that would have required far less time to prepare.

    NASA know about the foam strike within minutes as many cameras picked it up. They knew about the danger and they were two ways of possibly checking to see how much damage there was. They were telescopes capable of adequate resolution and they could have done a space walk. Neither of these was done.

    To have failed to have at least made an attempt to determine the actual extent of the damage before making the decision to go ahead with landing as normal. Is utterly incomprehensible unless you consider one ugly reality:

    George w bush considered the death of the astronauts to be preferable to the political embarrassment of having them rescued by the Soviet Union.

    They could have looked to see if a rescue was really necessary so they could land as normal if it wasn't. But the reason that they couldn't do that is that if they did and found out that rescue was required George w bush would have been put under intense pressure to accept the Soviet offer. And had he attempted a vastly more risky American rescue instead and it failed it would have been for him a political disaster.

    So the end result was that George w bush preferred to NOT look. Because if he didn't look at a disaster occurred (as of course it did) then he would be off the hook because he supposedly hadn't known that a rescue was really necessary.

    The only explanation for not even attempt to look is that George w bush found the death of all aboard to be preferable to a rescue by the Soviet Union.

    So the malignant politics of the president doomed the shuttle crew, exactly as happened with the Challenger - which was not launched the day prior to the fatal launch when conditions were far more favorable because that was a Sunday and Ronald Reagan wanted to make the announcement of a teacher being in space during prime time. And because he was making an important speech Monday he wanted the large done then and insisted it be done despite the temperature being almost 30° below the minimal acceptable temperature and against tremendous resistance from all the experts involved in the launch.

    In both cases it was not only not the "Right stuff" it was the longest stuff conceivable!!

    And for decades after that the United States did not launch any more astronauts in the space not because it didn't have the technological capability but because it's government was just too damned corrupt to handle something that demanded as much integrity as space launches.

  • The Mission leaders did not believe they were up for the task...and so they stuck their heads in the sand and didn't even look to see if they could be saved.

  • In reply to XtremeOutlier, I would correct you in that the Soviet Union no longer existed in 2003. If such a rescue could have been made it would have been by the Russian Federation. However I doubt they had such a vessel as I believe the Soyuz can't be accessed by spacewalking astronauts, plus they only have space for 3 seats. Not enough room for all 7 astronauts on Columbia. The Russian Buran space shuttle only flew once then was abandoned.

  • “ExtremeOutlier:” Problem with your theory: The Soviet Union ceased to exist back in 1990. Russia has a few Soyuz capsules, however, they cannot dock with a Shuttle and there would not have been room for everyone. There was no ego from the President of the time that would of prevented a rescue from Russia or the European Space Agency.

    Interesting that the majority of your post, after a simple Google check, matches portions of an Arthur C. Clarke novel (Odyssey 2) and the original ending to the film “Space Camp.”

  • To Val:

    IMHO it's very unfair to say that they "stuck their heads in the sand". .IMHO. A far more likely interpretation is that they were acutely aware that the rescue mission the Soviet Union offered was vastly more likely to succeed than anything that they could do and, given that it would have been unconscionable to have attempted a US rescue instead of a Soviet one, I suspect that they said as much but that this was later mischaracterized as them just saying they couldn't do it.

    "Why do the good guys always win? Because the Winners write the history books!"

    George w bush said decades before he became president that his lifetime ambition was to be a wartime president. To him the prospect of Peace breaking out (the end of the Cold war) was totally untenable. And a Soviet rescue of a shuttle full of us astronauts might have materially contributed to that end.

    George w bush desperately needed a war because when you have no leadership ability the only way you can drive the people is through fear.

    And just as with Ronald Reagan's dooming the Challenger with his demand that the launch proceed despite the temperature being almost 30° below the acceptable minimum, a horrendously bad and malignant presidential demand was met despite the technologists well knowing that it put a shuttle mission at extreme and totally unnecessary risk.

    PS. (OT)
    My apologies for lack of editing in my prior post. On days when the end of net neutrality and data strangulation or having severe effects I have to post using speech recognition without being able to see what is happening. Life as normal in an ungentrified rural area.

  • Wow outlier you are obviously a liberal political hack who knows little or nothing about the inner workings of NASA contractors or NASA itself. Let's set the record straight without moronic political conspiracy tales.
    I worked for rocket done at the time the Challenger accident occurred. Investigations were extensive to say the least, all work on the space shuttle by all contractors and subcontractors was put on a 2-year hold well every single thing was investigated. The conclusions of the investigation were that Morton thiokol, the contractor who built the solid rocket booster that exploded, their upper management disregarded their own engineers warning that the temperatures are too cold. Ronald Reagan had absolutely nothing to do with it. He is not involved in the launch or no launch decision process nor is any other president. The blame for this disaster rest s 100% on the shoulders of morton thiokols upper management, that's why they all resigned.
    The Columbia accident was a strictly NASA blunder. Engineers began evaluating the ice damage immediately after launch. Their conclusion, there was the possibility of vehicle loss on re entry but because of mission duration limits and no viable repair options rescue and or repair were deemed not possible. It was decided to keep the information on the damage from the crew because nothing could be done. Again the president had nothing to do with it.
    You probably consider Biden a good president don't you?

  • hate to bring up a HUGE flaw in you reasoning XtremeOutlier. This event happened in 2003. Their was NO Soviet Union as the Soviet Union dissolved and literally ceased to exist in 1991 which was over a decade prior. I don't see how a country that didn't exist could rescue anyone. That would be a HUGE undertaken

  • XO, please amuse the rest of us with some more of your silly fantasy conspiracy theories... Please! I haven't laughed so hard in ages. Haha you funny.

  • Why so people attack Outfitter? Any brain can see his errors, but calling him liberal for acting about as smart as a conservative… was that necessary? He gets his info from a
    Google search, don’t blame him for not being able to afford an education & holding a grudge against Ronald Reagan. After all my college degree cost $1,047.26 with $128.47 due every quarter. That was just before Reagan slashed education forcing tuitions up. His reasoning he did not hide. Saying, “i am tired of our federal govt funding college campuses which are breeding grounds for Liberals.” Typical Reagan. Even he knew
    Comservatives are cured through education. No education allows Conservative populations to grow & so he slashed it &
    did so while praising school teachers. But never praised higher education. As tuitions rose because of his cuts he refused accountability. He was a real class act liar. His best role was acting as our President and
    Sorry, but the day before the Challenger explosion he threatened budget cuts against NASA. The shuttle, which crew included the first civilian, a school teacher from a large &
    rare Republican city, Spokane, in my home state which had voted for him in both elections, would never vote Republican again after he sent that elementary school teacher to her death. Reagan made it very clear he was pissed. He alone could have slashed their budget & would have. The Reagans after all went to every scheduled flight to see the teacher off & he didn’t have the brain that this is highly complicated research that has real dangers. Its experimental & was never approved as anything but highly dangerous. But Reagan, already not popular with teachers staged this contest to find a teacher to go into space. Was he insane? No he was an idiot. His abuse of power made people afraid of him. Nobody at NASA was going to risk their career over the possibility the O-rings were rated to have a min launch temperature of 54°, it was 28° that morning. And while senior management had overrode engineer orders as low as 41° with no problems, they never tested or attempted below freezing or below 41° but the Vendor made clear they were not recommending anything below 54°
    Privately they may have disagreed and NASA was more terrified of Reagan than an explosion. NASA ultimately makes the decision. If they said no, heads roll. If they say yes, well Reagan threatened them. Blame him. And i do. My fingerprints were on the Challenger & the Columbia was my baby!
    There is no doubt in my mind Reagan used his popularity to bully people around & was directly warmed by NASA top brass the danger and how unreliable space travel is. Every launch is an experiment because its simply to expensive to not use these experiments filled with paying customers. And remember the Soviets who built tjeir own Space Shuttle having basically stealing the plans from hundreds of vendors, launched it successfully by remote control because even they knew how dangerous it was & refused to man its only flight. The Soviet Union went bankrupt soon after because Reagans doubling size of our military & were forced to cut their shuttle program. A huge disadvantage for NASA as far as acquiring info they would have found solutions for. Now look at the madness running Russia today? Vladimir Putin never could have excelled under the Soviet regime in the KGB, but thanks to Reagan he is. If Vlad launches nukes to Ukraine we know who is responsible for our rapid vaporized souls. Mr 666 himself. RONALD WILSON REAGAN, 3 names all 6 letters. We all knew it & everybody laughed it off.. Name one good thing that pathetic evil man did. Name ONE. Everything he touched turned to evil.

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