If NASA had known ahead of time Space Shuttle Columbia was going to disintegrate on re-entry, they could have tried to rescue its crew. Here’s how.

If NASA had known ahead of time Space Shuttle Columbia was going to disintegrate on re-entry, they could have tried to rescue its crew. Here’s how.

By Dario Leone
Aug 7 2021
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Columbia was the first space shuttle to fly in space; its first flight took place in April 1981, and it successfully completed 27 missions before the disaster.

On its 28th flight, Columbia left Earth for the last time on Jan. 16, 2003. At the time, the shuttle program was focused on building the International Space Station. However, Columbia’s final mission, known as STS-107, 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.

On Feb. 1, 2003, space shuttle Columbia broke up as it returned to Earth, killing the seven astronauts on board.

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.’

If NASA had known ahead of time Space Shuttle Columbia was going to disintegrate on re-entry, they could have tried to rescue its crew. Here’s how.
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.

If NASA had known ahead of time Space Shuttle Columbia was going to disintegrate on re-entry, they could have tried to rescue its crew. Here’s how.

‘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.’

If NASA had known ahead of time Space Shuttle Columbia was going to disintegrate on re-entry, they could have tried to rescue its crew. Here’s how.
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


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Dario Leone

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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