The audacious rescue plan that might have saved space shuttle Columbia
2014 02 28

By Lee Hutchinson | ARS Technica

If we die, we want people to accept it. We are in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us, it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.

—Astronaut Gus Grissom, 1965

It is important to note at the outset that Columbia broke up during a phase of flight that, given the current design of the Orbiter, offered no possibility of crew survival.

—Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report


At 10:39 Eastern Standard Time on January 16, 2003, space shuttle Columbia lifted off from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. A mere 81.7 seconds later, a chunk of insulating foam tore free from the orange external tank and smashed into the leading edge of the orbiter’s left wing at a relative velocity of at least 400 miles per hour (640 kph), but Columbia continued to climb toward orbit.

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.

In reality, the impact shattered at least one of the crucial reinforced carbon-carbon heat shield panels that lined the edge of the wing, leaving a large hole in the brittle ceramic material. Sixteen days later, as Columbia re-entered the atmosphere, superheated plasma entered the orbiter’s structure through the hole in the wing and the shuttle began to disintegrate.

At Mission Control in Houston, the flight controllers monitoring Columbia’s descent began to notice erratic telemetry readings coming from the shuttle, and then all voice and data contact with the orbiter was lost. Controllers continued to hope that they were merely looking at instrumentation failures, even as evidence mounted that a catastrophic event had taken place. Finally, at 9:12 Eastern Time, re-entry Flight Director LeRoy Cain gave the terrible order that had only been uttered once before, 17 years earlier when Challenger broke apart at launch: "Lock the doors."

It was an acknowledgement that the worst had happened; the mission was now in "contingency" mode. Mission Control was sealed off, and each flight controller began carefully preserving his or her console’s data.

Columbia was gone, and all seven of its crew had been killed. NASA refers to this most rare and catastrophic of events as an LOCV—"Loss of Crew and Vehicle."
Frozen

Columbia is lost. There are no survivors.

—President George W. Bush in a national address, 14:04 EST, February 1, 2003


The world of human space flight paused—first to mourn, then to discover what had happened. Congress laid that responsibility on the combined shoulders of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (referred to, in typical NASA acronym-dependent style, as "the CAIB" or just "CAIB," which rhymes with "Gabe"). In the months after Columbia, the CAIB stretched its investigative fingers all through NASA and its supporting contractors.

My own memories of the time immediately following the accident are dominated by images of somber meetings and frantic work. I was a junior system administrator at Boeing in Houston, and because we supported the shuttle program, we had to locate and send cases and cases of backup tapes—containing everything that happened on every server in our data center during the mission—over to NASA for analysis.

In August 2003, the CAIB issued its final report. Behind the direct cause of the foam strike, the report leveled damning critiques at NASA’s pre- and post-launch decision-making, painting a picture of an agency dominated by milestone-obsessed middle management. That focus on narrow, group-specific work and reporting, without a complementary focus on cross-department integration and communication, contributed at least as much to the loss of the shuttle as did the foam impact. Those accusations held a faint echo of familiarity—many of them had been raised 17 years earlier by the Rogers Commission investigating Challenger’s destruction.

[...]

Read the full article at: arstechnica.com



Related Articles
Carl Sagan warned of space shuttle Columbia disaster? The truth is in The Vault
NASA sells shuttle PCs without wiping secret data
U.S. astronaut John Glenn: Keep space shuttles flying
NASA Investigates Remote Possibility of Shuttle Sabotage
NASA’s moon landing remembered today as a promise of a ‘future which never happened’
U-2: The NASA Coverup
NASA Hid Aldrin’s Moon Communion


Latest News from our Front Page

CIA torture is reason for France to exit NATO – Le Pen
2014-12-17 20:20
The shocking revelations of CIA torture techniques give France a reason to exit NATO, National Front party leader Marine Le Pen said on Saturday. The report on the CIA’s former interrogation practices has drawn wide criticism since its release. “If indeed everyone is outraged by the tortures used by the US then, let’s leave NATO,” Le Pen said during an interview ...
900 Documented Examples of Obama's Lawbreaking, Lying, Corruption, Cronyism, Hypocrisy & Waste
2014-12-17 20:00
By Tim Brown from sonsoflibertymedia.com: Our friend, Dan from Squirrel Hill, has updated his list to 900 documented examples of Barack Obama¡¯s lying, lawbreaking, corruption, cronyism, etc. He began with 252 examples, then quickly grew to 504 and later to 694. Recently, he added more than 200 more examples of the usurper-in-chief¡¯s unlawful acts. Every President, every politician, and every human ...
A Step Closer to the Mysterious Origin of the Viking Sword Ulfberht
2014 12 16
The universe is full of mysteries that challenge our current knowledge. In "Beyond Science" Epoch Times collects stories about these strange phenomena to stimulate the imagination and open up previously undreamed of possibilities. Are they true? You decide. Ulfberht was like a Medieval luxury brand for swords—but unlike your Gucci purse, the swords were of such high quality they were almost ...
Israel proposes natural gas pipeline to Southern Europe
2014-12-16 12:39
Israel is pushing for the European Union (EU) to approve the construction of a pipeline running from the Middle Eastern country to supply Cyprus, Greece and Italy with natural gas. The proposed EastMed pipeline will carry gas from the Tamar and Leviathan gas fields located in the Mediterranean Sea, to Southern Europe. As the Times of Israel reported in an ...
As Robots Grow Smarter, American Workers Struggle to Keep Up
2014 12 16
A machine that administers sedatives recently began treating patients at a Seattle hospital. At a Silicon Valley hotel, a bellhop robot delivers items to people’s rooms. Last spring, a software algorithm wrote a breaking news article about an earthquake that The Los Angeles Times published. Although fears that technology will displace jobs are at least as old as the Luddites, there ...
More News »