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The Rescue Plan That Could Have Saved Space Shuttle Columbia

Soulskill posted about 8 months ago | from the if-only dept.

NASA 247

An anonymous reader writes "In February, 2003, space shuttle Columbia was lost upon atmospheric re-entry. Afterward, NASA commissioned an exhaustive investigation to figure out what happened, and how it could be prevented in the future. However, they also figured out exactly what would have been required for a repair and rescue mission using Atlantis. Lee Hutchinson at Ars Technica went through the report and wrote a lengthy article explaining what such a mission would look like. In short: risky and terribly complex — but possible. 'In order to push Atlantis through processing in time, a number of standard checks would have to be abandoned. The expedited OPF processing would get Atlantis into the Vehicle Assembly Building in just six days, and the 24/7 prep work would then shave an additional day off the amount of time it takes to get Atlantis mated to its external tank and boosters. After only four days in the Vehicle Assembly Building, one of the two Crawler-Transporters would haul Atlantis out to Launch Complex 39, where it would stage on either Pad A or Pad B on Flight Day 15—January 30. ... Once on the pad, the final push to launch would begin. There would be no practice countdown for the astronauts chosen to fly the mission, nor would there be extra fuel leak tests. Prior to this launch, the shortest time a shuttle had spent on the launch pad was 14 days; the pad crews closing out Atlantis would have only 11 days to get it ready to fly.'"

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However.. (2, Insightful)

TechyImmigrant (175943) | about 8 months ago | (#46351593)

However, this presupposes that you knew about the problem before trying to land.

Re:However.. (5, Informative)

CohibaVancouver (864662) | about 8 months ago | (#46351657)

From TFA:

The foam strike was not observed live. Only after the shuttle was orbiting Earth did NASA's launch imagery review reveal that the wing had been hit. Foam strikes during launch were not uncommon events, and shuttle program managers elected not to take on-orbit images of Columbia to visually assess any potential damage. Instead, NASA's Debris Assessment Team mathematically modeled the foam strike but could not reach any definitive conclusions about the state of the shuttle's wing.

The mission continued.

Re:However.. (5, Funny)

Cryacin (657549) | about 8 months ago | (#46352069)

Yes, but this was their contingency plan portfolio at the time:

1. Spend 12 weeks to prep Atlantis at which time the larger astronauts would have begun eating the smallar astronauts. (Proven in animal testing)
2. Request $5b in DARPA funding to develop and deploy a space elevator to retrieve astronauts in 5 years. (Plus project delays, see problem with contingency #1)
3. Bruce Willis, a long rope, and a toothpick.
4. Buy Uncle Murphy a case of Guinness, pray to several gods, and try to land the sucker anyway. (AKA: The ostrich risk assessment technique).

Re:However.. (2)

Nimey (114278) | about 8 months ago | (#46352111)

OP couldn't have gotten first post if he'd RTFA'd.

Re:However.. (3, Informative)

CohibaVancouver (864662) | about 8 months ago | (#46352139)

OP couldn't have gotten first post if he'd RTFA'd.

The cool kids already RTFA four+ hours ago when it appeared on Digg & Reddit.

Re:However.. (2)

cdrudge (68377) | about 8 months ago | (#46352833)

All the really cool kids read it when posted by NASA.

Re:However.. (-1)

Tyketto (97265) | about 8 months ago | (#46352149)

And here is where IMHO, the wrong decision was made. They elected to not take images to see the damage. If they did, and saw the damage, instead of trying to rush Atlantis back into orbit, could they not have:
  1. Docked Columbia at the ISS,
  2. Moved the crew onto the ISS (potentially saving their lives),
  3. Conducted more analysis of the damage there, while
  4. Giving NASA more time to ready Atlantis or Discovery to bring them back, or even have the Russians ready a Soyuz rocket.

That gets the crew somewhere that they would not be in danger of something catastrophic (like what happened to Columbia), at the cost of a bit more space and time in orbit. All could have made it back to Earth alive.

But that's just me, and I may be totally wrong.

Re:However.. (5, Informative)

nrjyzerbuny (141033) | about 8 months ago | (#46352267)

As stated in the article (page 2, I know, I must be new here):

Columbia's 39 degree orbital inclination could not have been altered to the ISS 51.6 degree inclination without approximately 12,600 ft/sec of translational capability. Columbia had 448 ft/sec of propellant available.

Re:However.. (2)

CohibaVancouver (864662) | about 8 months ago | (#46352269)

Docked Columbia at the ISS

No. RTFA.

I may be totally wrong.

You are. Sorry.

Re:However.. (2)

sribe (304414) | about 8 months ago | (#46352281)

...Docked Columbia at the ISS...

No, they could not have. Columbia was in a very different orbit than ISS, and had nowhere near enough fuel to get there.

Re:However.. (1)

CohibaVancouver (864662) | about 8 months ago | (#46352367)

But Sandra Bullock made it from Hubble to the ISS, and *then* on to the Chinese station!

Re:However.. (4, Funny)

mmell (832646) | about 8 months ago | (#46352527)

Yeah, but we're talking about Sandra Bullock here.

Re:However.. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46352291)

I believe there was no option to fallback to ISS. Future shuttle missions, except for the final Hubble mission, had that option built in.

Re:However.. (1)

CohibaVancouver (864662) | about 8 months ago | (#46352503)

Because that's where they were going!

Re:However.. (1)

krlynch (158571) | about 8 months ago | (#46352307)

The station and shuttle were in incompatible orbits for docking: it would have been physically impossible to get the Columbia to the station.

Re:However.. (-1, Flamebait)

ackthpt (218170) | about 8 months ago | (#46352429)

Nothing like a wrong decision to give Murphy's Law a leg up.

I wonder how those who made the decisions slept that night. Probably like babies, because sociopaths never believe anything is their own fault.

Re:However.. (5, Insightful)

EvolutionInAction (2623513) | about 8 months ago | (#46353043)

Fuck you. I don't normally go for insults, I like reasoned discussion. But fuck you if you think that the engineers and managers involved in the disaster weren't devastated. They made a choice, and it was the wrong choice. But you don't know jack shit about what went into that choice. How many times had there been foam strikes with no damage? How many times had they sacrificed part of the mission to do inspection, only to find no damage?

Re:However.. (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46351659)

Well yes, but:

a) Some engineers suspected a problem.
b) They could have done an over-fly to take a better look to confirm or deny the above.

Re:However.. (1)

OzPeter (195038) | about 8 months ago | (#46351669)

However, this presupposes that you knew about the problem before trying to land.

They knew there was a foam strike, they just chose not to actually look at it and instead rely on models to assess the damage. From TFA

The foam strike was not observed live. Only after the shuttle was orbiting Earth did NASA's launch imagery review reveal that the wing had been hit. Foam strikes during launch were not uncommon events, and shuttle program managers elected not to take on-orbit images of Columbia to visually assess any potential damage. Instead, NASA's Debris Assessment Team mathematically modeled the foam strike but could not reach any definitive conclusions about the state of the shuttle's wing. The mission continued.

I'd love to know what the risk analysis of that decision looked like. And boy I would have loved to have seen what Richard Feynman would have make of it, given the new one he ripped for NASA over challenger. [nasa.gov]

Re:However.. (4, Insightful)

ceoyoyo (59147) | about 8 months ago | (#46352407)

Mathematical modelling team: "We can't be 100% sure, but the models don't look good. Recommend taking a look for damage."

Mission director: "And if we see damage what then?"

Engineering team: "Um."

Re: However.. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46352509)

This.

The plan is described in the article. It is:

Well, um, we could assemble the most dangerous mission to date to rescue the second most dangerous...

Re:However.. (1)

CohibaVancouver (864662) | about 8 months ago | (#46352581)

Mission director: "And if we see damage what then?"

"We could tell the crew so they could get on the horn and say goodbye to their loved ones one last time..."

Re:However.. (1)

ceoyoyo (59147) | about 8 months ago | (#46352795)

I don't think the damage to the shuttle was an obvious death sentence, even if they had inspected it (from the ground, likely). Do you call your mom and tell her goodbye every time you get in your car? The risk was undoubtedly higher than that, but so was the risk of the entire flight. Astronauts' loved ones know it's risky and I bet both sides know the goodbyes before any mission might be the last one. Regular reentries are dangerous too. Every one of those astronauts probably did call up mom/wife/kids/dogs before the reentry. In a similar situation I wouldn't mention that it was more dangerous than usual.

Re:However.. (1)

segedunum (883035) | about 8 months ago | (#46352601)

In a nutshell you've described the problem here. Making assumptions that nothing can be done will not make the problem go away and neither will deliberately not looking at it.

Re:However.. (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46352785)

Not looking because there was no plan to deal with what they might see was inexcusable.

Re:However.. (2)

rwa2 (4391) | about 8 months ago | (#46352927)

Seems like they could have launched some kind of lifeboat or three up to dock with them within 30 days.
How long would it have taken the Russians to prep a Proton rocket to deliver unmanned Soyuz capsules (and an airlock adapter) to them?

Eh, it would have looked bad to ask for help from the Russians. Nevermind.

http://www.nasaspaceflight.com... [nasaspaceflight.com]
http://historicspacecraft.com/... [historicspacecraft.com]

Re:However.. (3, Insightful)

IndigoDarkwolf (752210) | about 8 months ago | (#46351673)

Not to mention, this sounds like the kind of plan that could easily result in the loss of two crews, instead of one.

Re:However.. (0)

CohibaVancouver (864662) | about 8 months ago | (#46351779)

Not to mention, this sounds like the kind of plan that could easily result in the loss of two crews, instead of one.

They used to say if man could fly, he'd have wings. But he did fly. He discovered he had to. Do you wish that the first Apollo mission hadn't reached the moon?

That's like a doctor saying they wished that they still operated with leeches and sewed their patients up with catgut like their great-great-grandfathers used to!

You're right in pointing out the enormous danger potential in that. But I must point out that the possibilities, the potential for knowledge and advancement is equally great!

Risk! Risk was their business!

That's what these spaceships were all about. That's why they crews were aboard them!

The engineers would have stood by to lauch the Atlantis.

Re:However.. (4, Informative)

quenda (644621) | about 8 months ago | (#46352419)

Do you wish that the first Apollo mission hadn't reached the moon?

Dude, I have some really bad news for you about Apollo I. They didn't even make it off the launchpad - all dead in a fire.
There were four more manned missions, and a number of unmanned missions before Apollo 11 reached the lunar surface.

Re:However.. (2)

ceoyoyo (59147) | about 8 months ago | (#46352467)

You can equally say the same thing about the Columbia crew. They happily took the risk, with full knowledge.

If the expected combined loss after a rescue mission was greater than the expected loss without one, the right decision is to not stage a rescue. That's not a popular decision, obviously, so the correct decision was likely exactly what was done: don't look, because if you do see a problem you can't (or shouldn't) do anything about it anyway.

Even after visually inspecting the orbiter (from the ground, likely), it's unlikely that it would have been a "if you reenter you're gonna die" conclusion. The decision wouldn't have been to try to save a doomed orbiter, it would have been whether or not to launch a risky rescue mission that possibly wasn't needed.

Re:However.. (0)

segedunum (883035) | about 8 months ago | (#46352673)

They happily took the risk, with full knowledge.

If the expected combined loss after a rescue mission was greater than the expected loss without one, the right decision is to not stage a rescue. That's not a popular decision, obviously, so the correct decision was likely exactly what was done: don't look, because if you do see a problem you can't (or shouldn't) do anything about it anyway.

That is an extremely slippery slope that just ensures a guaranteed disaster, and I'm afraid making idiotic assumptions like this is how and why Richard Feynman showed up NASA's incompetence and stupidity.

In fact, I can't quite believe how moronic this post is.....

Re:However.. (1)

ceoyoyo (59147) | about 8 months ago | (#46352865)

Richard Feynman lambasted NASA for making stupid decisions and taking unnecessary risks on the ground. That is, in a situation where they most definitely could, and most definitely should have done something about it, and doing so would obviously reduce the danger of disaster and death, not increase it. See the difference?

Post-event armchair quarterbacking is idiotic. Making decisions with people's lives "for guts and glory!" is idiotic. Emotional "but Richard Feynman!" and "but I must point out that the possibilities, the potential for knowledge and advancement is equally great!" arguments are idiotic.

Re:However.. (1)

mmell (832646) | about 8 months ago | (#46352539)

You've been watching Star Trek (TOS) again, haven't you?

Re:However.. (1)

geekoid (135745) | about 8 months ago | (#46351831)

And? Frankly it's worth the risk.

But someone of us would run under fire to pull an injured person to safety, and then there are people like you.

Fortunately Cowards don't become astronauts.

Re:However.. (1)

mosb1000 (710161) | about 8 months ago | (#46351935)

Fortunately Cowards don't become astronauts.

Unfortunately, they do become administrators. . .

Re:However.. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46352035)

Or cowards comment on the story 10+ years after the fact. They didn't know the damage was catastrophic because this same issue had occurred 4 times previously. And if you read the article, you'd see that a rescue mission was highly likely to fail considering the time line and limitations of the existing shuttle program at the time. That' why the entire program was grounded for over 2 years: to assess and come up with contingencies for future missions.

Re:However.. (2)

mosb1000 (710161) | about 8 months ago | (#46352191)

Why investigate and attempt to solve a potential problem that your engineers have brought to you attention? There could be some risk involved (to your career). Better to do nothing and write a report later on saying there was nothing you could do.

Re:However.. (1)

roc97007 (608802) | about 8 months ago | (#46352113)

Fortunately Cowards don't become astronauts.

Unfortunately, they do become administrators. . .

Sad. True.

Re:However.. (1)

ganjadude (952775) | about 8 months ago | (#46351997)

True, they become congressmen and presidents

Re:However.. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46352261)

Andrew Jackson wasn't a coward. But from everything I've read he may have been a sociopath. Also a giant a-hole.

If you have a time machine with a short range (2)

localroger (258128) | about 8 months ago | (#46351741)

...of only a few days, then this would be quite useful. You could get Denzel Washington in onthe project somehow.

Re:However.. (1)

segedunum (883035) | about 8 months ago | (#46352505)

However, this presupposes that you knew about the problem before trying to land.

There was a flurry of internal e-mails at NASA that showed they were very aware of the problem, and that they weren't going to do anything about it.

And when you lose Atlantis... (3, Insightful)

Maxo-Texas (864189) | about 8 months ago | (#46351679)

Because you were cutting corners?

What then?

Re:And when you lose Atlantis... (1)

fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) | about 8 months ago | (#46351737)

Well, the first person to make a tasteless remark about the relative merits of doubling down and folding to the assembled multitudes at mission control would probably get his face punched...

Re:And when you lose Atlantis... (1, Interesting)

geekoid (135745) | about 8 months ago | (#46351857)

If not when, and so what? Seriously, its worth the risk to try and save people.

You're question could be asked by anyone wanting to rescue anyone anywhere.

Re:And when you lose Atlantis... (2)

ColdWetDog (752185) | about 8 months ago | (#46351979)

If not when, and so what? Seriously, its worth the risk to try and save people.

Not necessarily. As TFA noted, a number of scenarios were considered. It wasn't at all clear than they would have worked at all and there was an excellent chance that the Atlantis AND the crew would have been lost. So making hard headed cost benefit analysis calculations really does work in the real world.

Otherwise your car would go 5 mph and no one, but no one would ever fly in a plane.

Re:And when you lose Atlantis... (1)

roc97007 (608802) | about 8 months ago | (#46352137)

True. It's called Risk Management. (There's a wiki...)

Re:And when you lose Atlantis... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46352061)

When learning first-aid the first rule is: make sure you are save before trying to give first-aid to someone; no one wants a second victim.

Re:And when you lose Atlantis... (1)

slew (2918) | about 8 months ago | (#46352289)

Of course sometimes the act of making sure you (and your team) are safe before trying to give first-aid to someone might get you hauled away in handcuffs [utsandiego.com] .

Re:And when you lose Atlantis... (5, Insightful)

Aaden42 (198257) | about 8 months ago | (#46352209)

If you knew with complete assurance that the first crew would be lost if they attempted to land without repair, then it would likely be worth the risk to a second crew to mount a rescue.

If on the other hand, there’s only some chance that the first crew would be lost attempting to land, then working that risk into the risk to the second crew is reasonable. IE if there’s a 10% chance that there might have been trouble landing (and it sounds like the foam strikes leading up to Columbia’s trouble were in fact common, so could be considered low-risk) then it’s not unreasonable to decide that the risk of the second crew is an unreasonable risk. Consider also that the risk to this second crew for an accelerated launch process would likely have been FAR greater than a “normal” shuttle launch (assuming it can be said there’s anything “normal” about strapping a bomb to your ass and fleeing the planet...)

If there’s a very high chance of failure of the original crew’s landing, then the additional risk might be worth it. If not, then you really are doubling down and risking losing two crews. It’s entirely plausible that due to the corners cut for an accelerated launch Atlantis could have exploded during launch, leaving Columbia to still take their chances landing with a damaged wing.

Armchair quarterbacking is easy. Saying they should have risked a second crew *now*, knowing that it’s an impossibility and that your assertion that the risk is reasonable will never be tested is also easy. Being left to make that call in the moment, knowing that you could be sending a second shuttle crew to their deaths trying to help another crew that might not even need the help the first place. Little bit harder to live with that one...

The loss of the Columbia crew is a tragedy, but looking back based on this report, it doesn’t seem like the way it was handled was unreasonable.

Re: And when you lose Atlantis... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46352565)

Mod parent up. They made the call as best they could with information at hand. Armchairing when you know the result is cheating.

Re:And when you lose Atlantis... (0)

Stormy Dragon (800799) | about 8 months ago | (#46352223)

It's a simple calculation. Guaranteed loss of a crew of 7 vs. x% chance of losing a crew of nine by sending two people up on another shuttle.

7 > 9x
78% > x

If the chance of losing Atlantis on the rescue mission is less than 78%, your expected loss of life is better sending the rescue. If the chance of losing Atlantis is more than 78% chance, your expected loss of life is better not sending the rescue.

Re:And when you lose Atlantis... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46352383)

Except it wasn't the "guaranteed loss of 7 lives". They didn't send Columbia into reenty assuming that they would all die. And 10 years and an exhaustive study later, we still don't know what x was in your equation. So the real formula was 7y > 9x, where no one had any real clue of what x or y was, making it a completely meaningless equation.

Re:And when you lose Atlantis... (1)

Stormy Dragon (800799) | about 8 months ago | (#46352449)

No one knew because management made a deliberate decision to remain ignorant:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S... [wikipedia.org]

Re:And when you lose Atlantis... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46352811)

And with a stellar record like that I would totally trust them to successfully launch another rocket.
Anyone who has read into the numerous NASA disasters knows exactly how important lives^Wmoney was to the NASA management team.
Basically they had people saying we should find out if this is dangerous or why is this happening, and they said: "no one died this time, so it'll be fine next time".

Re:And when you lose Atlantis... (1)

ceoyoyo (59147) | about 8 months ago | (#46352533)

Except that it wasn't a certainty Columbia was going to be lost.

You don't taks that kind of risk with rescuers (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46351883)

One of the most basic rules of rescue operations is that you don't put rescuers into that kind of risky situation. That just created more victims.

Other options? (2)

firewrought (36952) | about 8 months ago | (#46351719)

I wonder what other options they investigated... for instance, would it have been feasible to do a spacewalk and relocate foam to critical areas? I know this stuff is way more complicated than any simplistic suggestions from the internet, but NASA pulled hell and high water to bring Apollo 13 home safely. Imminent emergencies have a way bringing out the greatness in an otherwise bureaucratic organization.

Re:Other options? (2)

WetCat (558132) | about 8 months ago | (#46351743)

Also, what options about using MKS were investigated? Was it possible to host all austronauts there after life support on Columbia has been exhausted, and then gradually evacuate via Sojuz and/or Atlantis?

Re:Other options? (1)

sconeu (64226) | about 8 months ago | (#46351873)

By MKS, I assume you mean ISS. And the answer is no. They were in radically different orbits, and Columbia did not have the delta-V to match.

Re:Other options? (1)

ColdWetDog (752185) | about 8 months ago | (#46351923)

Ah, the fine folks who don't read TFA. No, you could not have moved the Columbia to the ISS - it would have taken approximately twice as much fuel as the shuttle carried to pull than maneuver off.

Re:Other options? (1)

fructose (948996) | about 8 months ago | (#46351817)

The tiles on the leading edge of the wing aren't foam, they are a ceramic material and each tile is designed for a specific location on the wing. Cover the hole up? Not likely with the materials they had. It's not like they have extra leading edge tiles laying around anyway. The only real option would be to get them on another shuttle since the ISS was not accessible.

Re:Other options? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46351819)

No. The most critical area was the RCC panels on the leading edges of the wings, which are made of a quite different material from the tiles.

Re:Other options? (1)

zoffdino (848658) | about 8 months ago | (#46351841)

The difference with Apollo 13 is the worst case cost did not involve the loss of a second screw. They worked the heck out of the engineers on Earth to try bringing back that Moon capsule. No one had to claim on a second spaceship and hook a tow line to get it back. For Atlantis, you are risking a second vessel to save the first, with no guarantee that either will return successfully. The stake is much higher.

Re:Other options? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46351845)

I wonder what other options they investigated... for instance, would it have been feasible to do a spacewalk and relocate foam to critical areas?

The critical part wasn't foam (the foam in question is insulation on the cryogenic hydrogen tank, not high temperature insulation for re-entry. The critical part was the carbon-carbon leading edge on the wing. That cannot be easily patched.)

I know this stuff is way more complicated than any simplistic suggestions from the internet, but NASA pulled hell and high water to bring Apollo 13 home safely. Imminent emergencies have a way bringing out the greatness in an otherwise bureaucratic organization.

This is true... but it is also risky to try an improvised, untested solution in a critical part, which may add new risks, when you have no good way to know whether the potential problem really is a problem or not.

Hindsight is 20-20: looking back, we can say "they should have tried something, anything!" But hasty, desperate measures to fix a situation which may or may not need desperate measures...

Re:Other options? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46351867)

The foam was insulation that fell away and struck the leading edge of the wing. The problem was damage to the insulation in the wing.

I've recently had a close up look at one of the shuttle training mock-ups. The insulating heat shield carbon blocks - actually tiles - are very individualized - small shapes, curved to fit the exact spot where they go. Each one has its own serial number. They are not simple flat identical rectangles. I'd guess that none of them are identical.

I'm no expert by any stretch of the imagination. But I think the insulating tiles are ONLY on the bottom surface, where all the heat is during re-entry. If you could pull one from Area A to put into Area B - first it would not fit, and second - you would then leave a gap in Area A, which would be dangerous too.

In any event, it would be a fair bet that the only properly shaped piece would (at best) be the more or less identical one from the other wing. So, you couldn't just move it.

Re:Other options? (2)

ColdWetDog (752185) | about 8 months ago | (#46351891)

Yep, they investigated lots of options. They're all in TFA (the CAIB, not just the Ars article but you might start there).

No, you can't 'relocate the foam'. The damaged part was a carbon-fibre leading edge element, not foam. NASA subsequently developed a patch for this sort of damage but obviously stuff like this takes time.

And to everyone who thinks that the Columbia accident and Apollo 13 are somehow equivalent consider this - in Apollo 13 "all" they had to do was to stay alive until they could loop the CSM and lunar module back to earth. The Command module with it's heat shield and other reentry gear was intact.

Columbia lost it's ability to reenter the earth's atmosphere. To fix it required never-done-before-engineering outside the spacecraft. Sometimes just willing something isn't enough to get it done.

Re:Other options? (2)

ganjadude (952775) | about 8 months ago | (#46352067)

To be fair concerning apollo 13 grown crew had no idea if the heat shield was damaged or not, and intentionally kept it from the crew as to not put them inder any more stress. At the time they thoight it was 50 50 that.the craft would burn up on reentry

Re:Other options? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46352163)

What a shining example of the English language.

Re:Other options? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46352439)

What did you expect from "ganjadude" ?

Re:Other options? (1)

Burdell (228580) | about 8 months ago | (#46352489)

There are risks in spaceflight that just can't really be overcome, except in hindsight. If what happened to Apollo 13 had happened to Apollo 8, the result would have been very different. Apollo 8 had no LM that could have been used as a "lifeboat", and it is unlikely that there would have been any other way to keep the astronauts alive. There's a good chance the Apollo program would have ended if NASA had two consecutive crews killed.

However, one thing from Apollo 8 helped Apollo 13: on Apollo 8, Jim Lovell accidentally erased the flight computer's memory and had to re-figure the position from start sightings. He had to do a similar task during Apollo 13 after the computer was powered down and restarted.

The Plan That Could Have Doomed Atlantis (5, Insightful)

Minwee (522556) | about 8 months ago | (#46351783)

"Could" is a pretty strong word. As Lee goes into some depth on exactly how much of a record breaking effort it would have taken just to get Atlantis off the ground in time to save Columbia, and how many corners would have to be not only cut but removed with a chainsaw, it would be more accurate to say that the plan proposed by the CAIB shows that even if the Launch Director had pointed to Columbia as it was launching and said "Hey, there are some missing tiles there. We need to get Atlantis ready right now", they still wouldn't have been able to do it.

The thing to take away from this is not that NASA could have saved Columbia but didn't, but that they changed the plan for every other shuttle launch so that they would always have a second launch vehicle on standby. It's about learning from mistakes, not making them worse.

Re:The Plan That Could Have Doomed Atlantis (1)

geekoid (135745) | about 8 months ago | (#46351901)

" they still wouldn't have been able to do it."
this actual report says otherwise.

But hey it's hard and risky, lets just not do it.

I remember people like you whining about dangers of Apollo and 'what if'. Screw you.

Re:The Plan That Could Have Doomed Atlantis (1)

n7ytd (230708) | about 8 months ago | (#46352337)

A lot of Monday morning quarterbacks on this one. Yes, they might have been able to cut lots of corners and gotten Atlantis up, at a significant risk to the Atlantis crew. What then? Do we have the Columbia crew spacewalk over to Atlantis with instructions for the last astronaut to turn off the lights? Aim Columbia at the ocean and hope for the best?

If they had had such a plan in place and executed it, and some other loss of life had happened because of the increased risk, everyone likely would have been up in arms about how NASA had cavalierly risked additional crew when they could have just reentered Columbia.

Re:The Plan That Could Have Doomed Atlantis (0)

mosb1000 (710161) | about 8 months ago | (#46351993)

It's about learning from mistakes, not making them worse.

If NASA was capable of learning from their mistakes, they wouldn't have been flying space shuttles in the first place.

Re:The Plan That Could Have Doomed Atlantis (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46352883)

So much of this.
All these disasters resulted from cutting corners to save costs everywhere they could.
So let's cut a bunch more and expect that magically it will go better this time.

The shuttle was only reusable... (1)

PhantomHarlock (189617) | about 8 months ago | (#46351787)

...if you encapsulate the word "reusable" in quotes. and this is a good illustration of that fact.

At $2bn per flight and a stack of signatures a mile high for each one, they required significant dissasembly and inspection in-between flights. The shuttle was never designed as a production vehicle - it was a test article hastily pressed into production. To keep a "hot standby" for rescue missions would thus be quite costly.

The future is ultimately with 100% reusable "gas and go" vehicles with automotive-like reliability, and not with the latest "SLS" - Senate Launch System. These vehicles require more R&D upfront but the payoff is staggering.

Re:The shuttle was only reusable... (1)

geekoid (135745) | about 8 months ago | (#46351945)

" would thus be quite costly."
So?

"The future is ultimately with 100% reusable "gas and go" vehicles with automotive-like reliability,"
You really have no clue about space flight do you?

We would need at least 2 major break through to make spaceships that don't nee to go throug riborious inspection after every flight:
1) A completely new type of complete ship shielding
2) Low g and low vibration lift off.

Even commercial aircraft get an inspection.

Re:The shuttle was only reusable... (1)

ceoyoyo (59147) | about 8 months ago | (#46352587)

PRIVATE aircraft get a very expensive inspection annually. I inspect my hang glider a hell of a lot more carefully than I inspect my car before every flight.

Better idea; resupply the shuttle (1)

knorthern knight (513660) | about 8 months ago | (#46351825)

The report deals with a tragedy 11 years ago (Feb 2003), and how it could've been handled 11 years ago. Fast forward to February 2014. Let's use today's tech. We've got SpaceX and other commercial entities capable of launching supplies into orbit and rendezvouing with with ISS or a shuttle.

If any similar missions are undertaken in future, pay SpaceX/whomever, to have a launch vehicle with emergency supplies on standby. In a worst case, send up enough oxygen/water/rations/etc to allow the orbiting shuttle crew to survive longer on the orbiting shuttle. This would buy enough extra time to do a proper and safe inspection+launch of the rescue shuttle. In a best case, they might be able to carry out the necessary repairs and safely land the orbiting shuttle.

Re:Better idea; resupply the shuttle (1)

es330td (964170) | about 8 months ago | (#46352107)

We've got SpaceX and other commercial entities capable of launching supplies into orbit and rendezvouing with with ISS or a shuttle.

I am not an aerospace engineer or astrophysicist, but I have to ask how "capable" SpaceX is of this mission you propose. SpaceX won the X Prize by getting to 112 km twice. The shuttle orbited at 304 km and the ISS at 370km. The marginal cost of taking each additional kg to space is significant. To get any amount of any moderate mass more than twice as high above the Earth has got to have a massive energy budget. I realize SpaceX gets to the edge of space, but Shuttle type altitudes are higher above where SpaceX got than SpaceX itself was above the Earth.

Re:Better idea; resupply the shuttle (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46352201)

I am not an aerospace engineer or astrophysicist, but I have to ask how "capable" SpaceX is of this mission you propose. SpaceX won the X Prize by getting to 112 km twice. .... I realize SpaceX gets to the edge of space, but Shuttle type altitudes are higher above where SpaceX got than SpaceX itself was above the Earth.

You are conflating SpaceX, and Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne and by association, Virgin Galactic.

Dont.

Re:Better idea; resupply the shuttle (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46352249)

The next step toward accuracy is to stop thinking about the difference in height, and start thinking about the energy needed to achieve that difference in speed.

Re:Better idea; resupply the shuttle (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46352313)

Huh? SpaceX has already delivered payloads to ISS three times. And they've put a satellite into geostationary orbit.

Where have you been? Under a rock?

Re:Better idea; resupply the shuttle (1)

es330td (964170) | about 8 months ago | (#46352363)

Apparently. Sometimes I come to /. to find out how incomplete my knowledge is.

What choice did they have? None really (1)

bobbied (2522392) | about 8 months ago | (#46351911)

A repair mission was pretty much impossible. A rescue mission might have been, but as others will be sure to point out this would have been risky and didn't stand a very good chance of success. But it was ONLY possible had they known for sure the damage was terminal and had started the rescue mission right after the launch. Given they didn't really know the extent of the damage, trying a reentry was pretty much the only option. I don't begrudge the mission controllers for going though with it.

Astronauts know the risks they take all too well. They fully accept the risk that they may not come home, and that death may not be quick. Many of the modes of death they face are quick. But some are slow lingering affairs. I cannot imagine dying of Hypoxia in a cold soundless metal cylinder, knowing what was coming, but having no options.

But heroes are like that. For the sake of the mission they take risks we would never imagine. Astronauts are rare, not because they number only a few, but because of what they choose to do in spite of the risks.

Paralysis by Analysis (1)

globaljustin (574257) | about 8 months ago | (#46351941)

This kind of thing really makes me angry, because the Columbia crew *did not have to die*

I absolutely hate the triumph of spreadsheet analysis over human intuition and experience.

NOTE: I'm not saying quantitative analysis, project management, risk analysis, etc isn't important...trolls...for fucks sake...I'm acknowledging that all of it is valuable and should be done.

That being said, humans need to be dealt back into the NASA decision process.

Two reasons:

1. Humans can comprehend complexity that we cannot program a machine to compute or put into numbers on a spreadsheet.

2. Redundant decision systems provide cover for incompetence & mismanagement. If the system is so complex no top decision has a human to be held accountable...well what's the difference then between an overly complex system and total anarchy?

NASA isn't the only organization suffering from 'paralysis by analysis' but it is such a special case b/c it is a government agency, very PR sensitive, & involves human lives & billions of dollars.

It's one of the most advanced orgs in existence...doing the most complex tasks humans are attempting...its logical then that NASA would have the 'worst' of these problems but it's due to their scale not any incompetence on your NASA workforce.

Re:Paralysis by Analysis (1)

Stormy Dragon (800799) | about 8 months ago | (#46352153)

This is exactly wrong. Putting more "human" decision makers in place is exactly what lead to the Challenger disaster and Columbia disasters. Because the "feels" of public relations was more important than the "mere numbers" of astronaut safety.

Re:Paralysis by Analysis (1)

Attila the Bun (952109) | about 8 months ago | (#46352703)

This is exactly wrong. Putting more "human" decision makers in place is exactly what lead to the Challenger disaster and Columbia disasters.

Right. Certain people claimed that they "felt" that the weather was too cold on the day of the Challenger explosion. Others "felt" that the risk was one in a million. Who's right? If you scrub the launch whenever one of the thousands of NASA technicians feels nervous you'll never do anything. Only by quantifying the risk can you work out what to do, and it took Feynamn to demonstrate that.

words in my mouth (1)

globaljustin (574257) | about 8 months ago | (#46352969)

Certain people claimed that they "felt" that the weather was too cold on the day of the Challenger explosion.

You're putting words in my mouth and misrepresenting my point.

I took *great pains* to point out that *I value all quantifiable data greatly*...damn...

Also, you make it out like my side is saying, "Oh if you're trick knee twinges then 'go for it dude'!" or some kind of ridiculous crap.

That's absolutely not what I said at all....I said humans can comprehend complexity that they **cannot program a machine or quantify**

Big difference.

Re:Paralysis by Analysis (1)

ceoyoyo (59147) | about 8 months ago | (#46352653)

That's stupid. Humans, based on as much quantitative analysis as they could get their hands on, decided not to try any crazy rescue schemes on the chance that Columbia might not make it. People responsible for other people's lives make decisions based on the very best information they can get, not on a gut feeling and a yee haw.

Abandon standard checks (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46352109)

So abandon some standard checks and risk losing 2 crews along with the shuttles.

Yep!

Only rush is them running out of air (1)

Impy the Impiuos Imp (442658) | about 8 months ago | (#46352159)

There's no reason to immediately repair it, though you could, of course, and land it by computer, which it's fully capable of.

That assumes you have the repair technique well-designed by the time the rescue launches.

Better to have a later mission come back and fix it, then land by computer.

Re:Only rush is them running out of air (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46352427)

Fun fact: the Shuttle could not be landed by computer because the astronauts insisted that the flight computer not be able to deploy the landing gear. Otherwise it can be flown remotely.

Re:Only rush is them running out of air (1)

CohibaVancouver (864662) | about 8 months ago | (#46352455)

of course, and land it by computer, which it's fully capable of

Sigh.

I know it's a long (ish) article full of y'know, words 'n stuff, but from page FOUR -

even if successful reentry were possible, the shuttle could not be landed entirely from the ground - there was no way for Mission Control to have extended the shuttle's landing gear or the air probes necessary to judge velocity once in the atmosphere. Those functions (as well as starting the shuttle's auxiliary power unit) could only be invoked by physically throwing switches in the cockpit during approach and landing.

Fail (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46352563)

And now the U.S. has NO manned space capability... Except for thumbing a ride with the Russians! Times sure have changed.

Just Call 1-800-RUSSIAN (1)

Tablizer (95088) | about 8 months ago | (#46352815)

Need a Ride?

Debris Assessment Team modeled foam strike .. (2)

DTentilhao (3484023) | about 8 months ago | (#46353013)

"The foam strike was not observed live. Only after the shuttle was orbiting Earth did NASA's launch imagery review reveal that the wing had been hit. Foam strikes during launch were not uncommon events, and shuttle program managers elected not to take on-orbit images of Columbia to visually assess any potential damage. Instead, NASA's Debris Assessment Team [arstechnica.com] mathematically modeled the foam strike but could not reach any definitive conclusions about the state of the shuttle's wing. The mission continued"

NASA management choose to ignore reports of a foam strike, as they ignored previous problems with the O-Rings ..

'NASA engineer, Rodney Rocha .. said he tried at least half a dozen times to get the space agency to make the requests. There were two similar efforts by other engineers. All were turned aside. Mr. Rocha (pronounced ROE-cha) said a manager told him that he refused to be a "Chicken Little." The Columbia's flight director, LeRoy Cain, wrote a curt e-mail message that concluded, "I consider it to be a dead issue [umd.edu] "`

What about launching supplies? (1)

Above (100351) | about 8 months ago | (#46353079)

If the issue is the CO2 canisters, or even other supplies like liquid oxygen, what about launching supplies? Could the Russians have launched faster, perhaps with a vehicle already on the pad? Could we have used a unmanned rocket that would normally launch a satellite or similar to launch a payload of supplies?

From my read of the timeline even buying just a week or two might have changed the "launch a backup shuttle" plan from amazingly risky to just somewhat risky. I'm not trying to suggest getting supplies there would have been trivial, but if the right sort of rocket was ready to go it might have been a way to buy time.

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