Space

NASA could have tried to Launch Space Shuttle Atlantis on a rescue mission if they had known Columbia was going to disintegrate on re-entry

Space Shuttle Columbia is lost

On Saturday Feb. 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia was lost and seven NASA astronauts perished. They were Rick Husband, Mission Commander; William McCool, Pilot; Michael Anderson, Payload Commander; Kalpana Chawla, Mission Specialist; Laurel Clark, Mission Specialist; David Brown, Mission Specialist and the Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, Payload Specialist.

The Orbiter was flying over Texas, about 15 minutes from landing and at about 18 times the speed of sound. It was at an altitude of 63 km, about 1400 km from the landing site at KSC.

Launching Space Shuttle Atlantis on a rescue mission

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.

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

‘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.

Connecting Atlantis and Columbia with an extendable boom

‘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.’

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.’

Space Shuttle Columbia crew doomed

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.

View Comments

  • I worked for NASA in the mechanisms group at that time at KSC. The debris team was in our mechanical division and knew about the foam striking the orbiter fairly soon after launch. I do not know how much data and pictures they had other than the strike and debris coming off the wing from the strike. Over the length of the mission I gave much thought to an almost identical plan to myself during work. I also wondered if they were attempting to get hires photos with ground cameras of the wing. And as you say, because Atlantis, I was lead NASA MEQ engineer on 104, was very close to ready to fly they could have had it ready if management had implemented a plan. But sadly I have to honestly say that I believe that the upper levels in NASA decided not to look too closely as they were far too conservative as well afraid to do something so daring. I was waiting with my landing team at the SLF that day Columbia did not return and sadly remember that happening very personally. It was a tragedy that may have been avoidable and many tears were shed at the control tower before the team was sent home. I also went with four other guys from our division to the Dallas/Ft. Worth area spending a week plus searching for the lighter pieces that broke off first and fell into that area. The heavy objects kept going to the TX/LA border.

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