Columbia rescue - save the space shuttle !

Discussion in 'Alternate History Discussion: After 1900' started by Archibald, Feb 12, 2013.

  1. Archibald space jockey ! Banned

    Jan 22, 2008
    Flight Day 1
    January 16, 2003, 10:39 EST
    Cape Canaveral Launch Complex 39, Florida

    That cold day of January Space Shuttle Columbia was to fly a Spacehab, a class of mission the International Space Station would made extinct soon.


    The old orbiter would be reduced to Hubble servicing every four years, but even these missions were nearing their end. Columbia in fact had only mission planned in the 21th century: that of retrieving Hubble. Of bringing it back to Earth, somewhere in the next decade. As for Columbia three siblings, per lack of viable successor - the shuttle was so unique a design NASA had failed to replace it - a plan was seriously considered to extend the space shuttle lives to the year 2020.

    The SSME lit first, and for seven seconds as they went full thrust they were thoroughly monitored.
    Then the immense solid rocket motors awoke into life and for a fraction of second the shuttle tried to lift its launch pad through the huge power of its five engines. Big pins were blown explosively, freeing the space shuttle which literally jumped upwards, throwing flames in the direction of orbit.


    Only ten minutes later and after an apparently nominal ascent the tank was discarded, the engines shut down, and Columbia peacefully drifted into orbit.
    What was to be a boring, last-of-its-kind, long delayed Spacehab mission had begun.
    The crew were all professionals deeply committed to their mission whatever the rest of the world, or NASA astronaut corp, could think about it. Half of the crew were rookies; and they come for all walk of life. Kalpana Chawla was born in India; guest cosmonaut Ilan Ramon was an Israeli pilot ; Michael Anderson was an afro-american and a veteran of the last flight to Mir four years before. Commander Rick Husband was a veteran of another Columbia / Spacehab mission years before. All others - William McCool, Laurel Clark and David Brown - were living the thrill of their first foray into orbit.
    NASA space shuttle had spent his whole career chasing elusive space stations. It was by itself the original sinner, since it had killed the space station it was to go in the very first place.
    In 1970, after losing nuclear shuttles to the Moon and Mars


    NASA pinned all hopes into a balanced package - the winged shuttle would fly to a space station. Even that package, however, was impossible to fund, and soon a choice had to be made - station or shuttle ?

    The reasoning at the time was the shuttle would be the truck to build the station, so the truck had to come first, and the station was pushed by a decade. The soviets, for their part, picked up the opposite path - station first, shuttle... someday. In the end Buran only fly once.

    Because it had no destinations to go - no Moon, no Mars, not even a space station - the shuttle had to seek an interim job to fill its first decade of existence. It ultimately earned a life launching satellites, all of them - military, science, and commercial satellites. By a bizarre twist of fate a federal agency like NASA found itself competing with private companies, notably Arianespace.
    In 1973 the shuttle was given all American satellites on a silver plate but the price to pay was that it was to earn money, and to achieve that it had to fly no less than 60 times a year - once a week ! Unfortunately experience would prove the vehicle could fly at best 8 times a year (in 1996).
    Early in the 80's NASA only partially acknowledged that reality by cutting the shuttle "ideal" flight rate to 24 a year, still three times more than what the shuttle could endure.
    From 1984 onwards the space agency had its back against a wall - 24 flights a year or lose face against Congress and the World.
    In 1985 the shuttle flew 10 times with two more flights cancelled. Still half the nominal target, yet the agency was already on its heels, scrapping everything it had for money and personal.
    In 1986 it was to fly 16 times, but as of mid-January repeated delays with the last 1985 flight had already ruined the schedule. Not only was the flight schedule gruelling, it was also constrained by fixed planetary launch windows - the Halley comet and planet Jupiter would not suffer any delay. The robotic probes would not wait !

    Since December shuttle flights had been pretty nightmarish. Columbia early December mission had lifted off early January; and from then things got worse. Delays on January 22; technical glitches on January 24 and January 27; and, last but not least, bad weather forecast all plotted to ruin the schedule. Enough was enough, for the aforementioned reasons the shuttle had to fly. After a handful of stormy, controversial video conferences in the evening of January 27 the decision was made to launch on a day that had not only the coldest temperatures on the ground, but also very brutal jet streams at 30 000 ft.
    That Tuesday, January 28 1986 the weather was definitively discouraging. Yet for the sake of impossible flight rates determining NASA credibility and unforgiving planetary launch windows, Space Shuttle Challenger was bound to go through these disastrous weather conditions.
    It did not made it.
    The night before the launch icy temperatures froze a join on a booster, the jet stream shook the frozen join; a tongue of flame then leaked from the damaged booster onto the external tank, piercing it. The tank violently disintegrated ... and the crewed orbiter above it was blown to pieces. The crew cabin retained a relative integrity but crashed into the ocean, killing all seven crew members including a school teacher that was to give a lesson from space. A major public relation hit for NASA now had very horribly and tragically backfired. Under Presidential inquiry the shuttle fleet was grounded for two and half years.

    Meanwhile the space station case was no better. The shuttle kept missing rendezvous with possible orbital outposts. Old Skylab could no wait for the shuttle to overcome its delays, and burned into the atmosphere in 1979.


    Afghanistan, Poland and Reagan election ensured no shuttle ever docked to a Soviet Salyut operated between 1978 and 1985. Salyut was improved into Mir and that time the shuttle was present to the rendezvous. After 1995 and for three years the shuttle meet the now Russian space station. It was a wonderful piece of international cooperation.


    What still missed, however, was some big American space station, a return of the project postponed by a decade to build the shuttle. In 1984 Reagan did just that, giving NASA $8 billion to build the station of their dreams.


    What none foresee at the time was it would be fourteen years before the first module was launched, and that module was a Russian one of Mir heritage !


    At the turn of the century NASA at least was building its (international) space station; the shuttle had returned to its original job as imagined in 1969. It had taken the best part of three decades to reach that nirvana. The shuttle credibility, however, had been definitively ruined by the disastrous satellite business leading to the Challenger disaster.
    As the shuttle missed a space station badly, and because that satellite job was not truly satisfying, early in the 70's an inexpensive ersatz of space station had been imagined. Europe Spacelab (and later its private incarnation Spacehab space shuttle Columbia carried that January 16, 2003) were space station without wings. They would fly into orbit within the shuttle payload bay but, in order to save money they would draw their life from the shuttle itself, meaning they could not be released to live a space station life. Instead they would stuck aboard the shuttle and get down with it at the end of the mission. Bluntly, Spacelab flew for brief 15 days missions instead of Mir continuous 15 years. The ISS, of course, would change that; but it had been delayed again and again and again.
    Circa 1997 and waiting for the never-coming ISS, Congress encouraged NASA flying Spacehab in a couple of missions. The space agency, however, did not give a rat: energy and money instead flowed into the ISS. The shore mission was delayed by two full years and ultimately fell on the oldest of the shuttle, veteran Columbia.
    It had once been the member of a troika that included the now defunct Challenger and the mostly forgotten Enterprise. The last two, unlike Columbia, were mock-ups; and one of the two mock-up was to be turned into a fully fledged shuttle to fly along Columbia itself. Early on the honour belonged to Enterprise; but Challenger was found to be easier to modify, and Enterprise never flew into orbit. With Challenger dead and Enterprise stuck in a museum old Columbia found itself isolated; it become a relic the other three shuttles - Discovery, Atlantis and Challenger successor Endeavour - looked with disdain.
    Columbia was considered a relic in the sense that, build ten years before Discovery its structure was somewhat heavier and its payload was lower. It happened the ISS was in a Russian-friendly orbit, and that orbit induced severe penalties for all shuttles - but Columbia higher mass made the penalties even more cumbersome.

    In 1996 NASA decided old Columbia would not build the ISS; it instead entered into a semi-retirement, doing every single non-ISS missions, although there were not many of them. As a result Columbia became intimate with the Hubble space telescope... and Spacehab.
    Last edited: Mar 1, 2013
  2. Dathi THorfinnsson Daði Þorfinnsson

    Apr 13, 2007
    Syracuse, Haudenosaunee, Vinland
    Im not sure what your pod to save the shuutle is supposed to be.

    The problem, as you stated is that political pressures meant they flew in worse and worse conditions, more and more ignoring engineers' recommendations. If it werent Columbia on that mission, it would have been a different shuttle, maybe one of the more modern ones. The same boosters were used in all the shuttles, so the same Oring defect was ready to hit any shuttle.

    And if someone fixed the Oring problem, they would have pushed until something else broke.

    While we might save any single machine, we cant save the Shuttle as a program. And of course, ice breaking off the ET was another disaster waiting to happen.
  3. Archibald space jockey ! Banned

    Jan 22, 2008
    The POD is coming. It is very small with big consequences.


    The loss of Columbia and its crew is a tragic story set in a close past, and as such it is very delicate to write on it.
    before writing this story the following ground rules were fixed
    - absolute respect of the crew
    - absolute respect of sensitive players even when they were criticized by the CAIB (see Linda Ham)
    - no dumb / easy / outrageous critic of NASA
    (the kind of crapshit so common on the Internet such as "they are irresponsible killers" or "the shuttle is a piece of junk")

    The Columbia Accident Investigation Board - CAIB - report is at the same time a ground-to-earth technical report and a formidable script for a sci-fi novel.

    That last aspect was obviously never desired in the first place.

    However reading the CAIB Volume II, appendix D.13 (entitled STS-107 In-Flight Options Assessment) one can't help thinking about Apollo 13.

    One has to read the CAIB descriptions of possible crew extravehicular sorties watching for the punctured leading edge or repair it.

    One has to try and imagine Atlantis and Columbia flying back-to-back only dozens of feet apart as astronauts climb rope from one orbiter to the other.

    What the report describes in 22 pages of unemotional, detached writing might have been the most formidable rescue mission in the history of the space program.

    Consider this TL a "novelization" of the CAIB appendix. It is centered around Columbia rescue and nothing else.
  4. Dathi THorfinnsson Daði Þorfinnsson

    Apr 13, 2007
    Syracuse, Haudenosaunee, Vinland
    Thank you.

    I also confused which was columbia and which challenger, i think.
  5. Athelstane Anglo-Saxon Troublemaker

    Jun 8, 2011
  6. The Oncoming Storm Well-Known Member

    Dec 30, 2010
    Fighting the system from within
    Same here!
  7. Archibald space jockey ! Banned

    Jan 22, 2008
    Thank you all. It is my first true TL since I joined this forum five years ago (that long ?)
    Writting TL on the space program is quite hard for many reasons.

    If you can get through a barrage of NASA jargon and technical wording, I really recommend the lecture of the CAIB appendix I linked. Even an hollywood scenarist or a sci-fi writer could never have imagined some of the things they describe. Makes you wish NASA had better spotted the debris strike that January 16, 2003.
    Which led us to the next installation and the POD :)

    Flight Day 2
    January 17, 2003
    Marshall Spaceflight Center, Huntsville, Alabama

    The Intercenter Photo Working Group (IPWG) was tasked with reviewing films and videos from the launch tracking cameras scattered for dozen of miles all around the shuttle launch pads. These cameras scrutinized every shuttle launch from every possible angle; nothing was supposed to escape their watchful eyes.
    Within a couple of hours after Columbia launch all the films and videos had been collected, rushed down to a lab in Miami, developed and sent back overnight with copies going to the three IPWG engineering review teams at Kennedy, Marshall, and Houston.
    Launching tracking cameras were of uttermost importance - and NASA had learned that lesson in blood.
    The moment Challenger launched (but only seen after the accident) a close-up camera caught puffs of black smoke - the booster join blown to dust.
    Two and half year later in September 1988 Discovery did a nominal return to flight, but the next mission, STS-27, was another near miss.
    During Atlantis ascent the tip of the solid rocket somewhat collapsed and crippled the orbiter in a shower of debris that severely impacted the fragile underbelly tiles. Once in orbit an alarmed crew used the robotic arm for an inspection that frightened them. The orbiter usually black underside was pockmarked with white stains corresponding to damaged tiles, plenty of them.

    (700 impacts and Atlantis made it through. Only 1 impact and Columbia got lost. Go figure)

    The crew transmitted their video to the ground, and there they hit a major snag.
    Because Atlantis STS-27 was a military, classified mission communications with the ground were encrypted and that just killed the pictures resolution. As received on the ground, the alarming video was blurred just enough not to look very worrying. Against the crew will the ground ordered them to return as if nothing happened; and Atlantis made it safely to California Edwards Air Force Base. Yet when the orbiter come to wheel-stop everybody paled at the devastation.


    By pure luck whatever tiles that were damaged were in non critical locations, except for one that was totally missing, and in a pretty critical location. The shuttle hold and the crew escaped an horrible death only because below the missing tile was some heavy metal plate that acted as a surrogate tile - and paid a high price for that. It was melted as if it had been made of chocolate.

    The lesson had been hard learned and the year after more powerful cameras were planted for miles and miles around the shuttle launch site.

    Within the next decade however NASA budget was cut by 20% and every corner of the agency, including launch tracking cameras at the Cape, suffered as a result.

    That January 16, 2003 images from Columbia ascent revealed that a large piece of debris from the left bipod area of the External Tank had struck the Orbiter's left wing. Because the resulting shower of post-impact fragments could not be seen passing over the top of the wing, analysts concluded that the debris had apparently impacted the left wing below the leading edge. Intercenter Photo Working Group members were concerned about the size of the object and the apparent momentum of the strike.
    They frantically searching for better views but soon they realized that only two cameras provided a higher-quality view of the impact and the potential damage to the Orbiter.
    A dozen ground-based sites were used to obtain images of the ascent for engineering analyses, each of which has film and video cameras.
    Five were designed to track the Shuttle from liftoff until it is out of view. Due to expected angle of view and atmospheric limitations, two sites did not capture the debris event, leaving three cameras. One of the three remaining cameras lost track of Columbia on ascent.
    Of the two, one captured only a view of the upper side of Columbia's left wing - and the impact had happened below.
    "As for the last camera site..." the film started to unravel.
    "What site and what cameras ?" Armando Oliu asked.
    "ET-208 and E-208."
    "Those located in Cocoa beach ?"
    [​IMG] (OTL Cocoa Beach tracking camera)

    "They are no longer there (1). That real estate boom happened in Cocoa over the last decade- all those massive condominiums build there gradually blocked the -208 cameras view. They have been moved to Patrick AFB three years ago. I vaguely remember one of the two was found to be defective at the time - NASA made a little fuss, blasting the company and the Air Force."

    "We should have blamed budget cuts instead." Oliu groaned. "Let's review ET-208 first."
    As its name implied ET-208 had focused on the large external tank; yet the impact the film showed, even in low resolution, was worrisome.
    The companion E-208, for its part had the same angle of view but a much sharper resolution.

    "Let's see...”
    By comparison with ET-208 it was like watching Columbia ascent under a magnifying lens. The level of detail was pretty good.
    "Excel..." the engineer did not ended his sentence. Armando Oliu face paled. "Look at this. Impact - wham ! straight on the underside wing leading edge reinforced carbon panel."

    (OTL ET-208 was the only game in town. The more powerful E-208 was hopelessly blurred)

    "And out of view of every other cameras." Oliu colleague lamented.
    "I have never, never seen such a large piece of debris strike the Orbiter so late in ascent." Oliu said. "82 seconds into the flight" he noted, "and how big and fast was that ? this is frightening."
    For long minutes the two mens watched the E-208 video again and again, tracking the exact location of the impact on Columbia. The foam had been blown into a little white cloud that went away in a fraction of a second. The crux of the problem was post-impact state of Columbia, and the video was not reassuring. "This smell bad" Oliu said. "Makes sure Marshall and Johnson Intercenter Photo Working Group members see this."
    Oliu colleague couldn't refrain the obvious question.

    "Should we ask for ground based imagery ? I mean, should the military try to image the shuttle wing in orbit ?"
    "At this point I don't know, and can't decide about that issue. What matters most so far is that the E-208 video by itself speaks volume. You see, things would be different if we had to prove the impact exact location on the orbiter via military ground imagery."

    Oliu started ringing the alarm bell. Within the next couple of hours he distributed a report and digitized clips of the strike via e-mail throughout the NASA and contractor communities. This report provided an initial view of the foam strike and would serve as the basis for subsequent decisions and actions.
    Within an hour Oliu boss and Chair of the Intercenter Photo Working Group - Robert Page - contacted Wayne Hale, the Shuttle Program Manager for Launch Integration at Kennedy Space Center, and Lambert Austin, the head of the Space Shuttle Systems Integration at Johnson Space Center.
    Page informed them that Boeing was performing an analysis to determine trajectories, velocities, angles, and energies for the debris impact; they had a dedicated software for that, born of the STS-27 1988 near-miss and dubbed Crater.

    Crater was a database made of every foam impact happened since 1981 and the first shuttle flight. From that database one could make computer simulations of impacts.
    In Bob Page opinion however Crater was not enough. He needed a direct proof: he needed more photos. He wanted to see Columbia. As such Page also asked Wayne Hale to request imagery of Columbia's left wing on-orbit. Hale, who agreed to explore the possibility, holds a Top Secret clearance and was familiar with the process for requesting military imaging from his experience as a Mission Control Flight Director.
    Shortly thereafter, Wayne Hale telephoned his superiors - Linda Ham, Chair of the Mission Management Team, and Ron Dittermore, Space Shuttle Program Manager, to pass along information about the debris strike and let them know that a formal report would be issued by the end of the day.
    Meanwhile John Disler, another member of the Intercenter Photo Working Group and a photo lab engineer at Johnson Space Center (not Kennedy) also called to report a debris hit on the vehicle. Disler alarm ultimately reached Rodney Rocha, NASA's designated chief engineer for the Thermal Protection System, of the strike and the approximate debris size.
    It was Rocha's responsibility to coordinate NASA engineering resources and work with contract engineers at United Space Alliance, who together would form a Debris Assessment Team that would be Co-Chaired by United Space Alliance (USA, the joint Boeing-Lockheed private company managing the shuttle since 1996) engineering manager Pam Madera.

    Madera signalled that the debris strike was to be classified as "out-of-family" and therefore of greater concern than previous debris strikes. As noted by Armando Oliu at the Cape, the strike had happened rather late in the ascent; as a result it was mostly out of Crater database, plus the debris was faster and thus more lethal. To make water worse the debris was also pretty big, the size of a suitcase !

    At about the same time, Oliu Intercenter Photo Working Group's report, containing both video clips and still images of the debris strike, was e-mailed to engineers and technical managers both inside and outside of NASA.
    That morning, all across the United States engineers watched Columbia ascent, playing and re-playing the video. Many pair of eyes stared at video monitors, trying to guess the exact impact location and what damage it had made. Worried e-mails were exchanged.
    Later that day Linda Ham had an extremely difficult decision to take, perhaps the hardest in her life.
    After a very ordinary lift-off it apeared STS-107 was off to a good start. It was as well like that. There was little interest in a mission Congress had rammed into NASA throat many years before. Yet if something went bad with STS-107 it would impact every shuttle missions to follow in the pipeline, notably STS-120 to be flown a year later. That mission was to carry the so-called Node 2, a crucial piece in the International Space Station puzzle. With all the delays and cost overruns happened in the ISS program, it was better for STS-120 not to slip.
    Unfortunately for some hours now Linda Ham was hearing much alarm about a big foam loss from the tank impacting the underside of the shuttle wing. Serious damage would obviously mean the end of the mission and a major emergency. And further delays to STS-120, obviously, if the shuttle had to be grounded once again, as happened too many times since 2000.
    Linda Ham had exactly four diverse sources of information to make her decision.
    First there was that video taken from tracking camera E-208 in Patrick AFB.
    She could also ask for thermal protection experts opinion in Houston - they were Calvin Schomburg for the silica tiles on the orbiter belly, and Don Curry for the though carbon panels protecting the wing leading edge.
    There walso the Crater software of impact simulation.
    Lastly, she could ask for the military to image the shuttle in flight - they had some incredibly powerful systems on the ground and in orbit.
    So the issue was not a lack of possible solutions; instead, it was the priority in which to exercise them. According to the priority given, some might be eliminated.
    Where to start ?
    Ham dug out of a sheet of paper and started listing the sources, examining how they worked - or not - together, and the pros and cons.
    The video clearly had an edge; but what next ?
    Military imaging of the shuttle was the tricky part. It was a complex, cumbersome process to set up, with all that classified stuff, and the very tight security clearances born of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Linda Ham felt that Crater analysis plus advice from the two, well respected experts should be enough.
    But... she couldn't get the still picture of the impact out of her head. That, and her phone call to Wayne Hale earlier in the day.
    "Bob Page is an excitable guy" she had told him.
    "Sure, he is excited." Hale replied. "But today I felt his excitation is justified. You had to saw his face - one can't downplay his concerns. He really pressed me to discuss options about how to get more data about possible damage to the wing; he is clearly upset. He makes a convincing case."

    Linda Ham had made her decision.

    Crater results, Don Curry and Schomburg advices would all be taken into consideration, but further imagery of that left wing was also necessary. She realized that, if the military imagery even remotely matched that of the Cape video, then they would face an emergency.

    She phoned Wayne Hale and told him to order an expedited request for national assets to inspect Columbia.

    (1) This is the point of divergence. In STS-107 tragic history that tracking camera remained in Cocoa Beach until after the disaster, and was moved to Patrick AFB in 2004. Much more importantly it was found to have defective lenses. On February 16 2003 that resulted in a film so blurred that, despite NASA best efforts to make it better (and they did tried everything that was technically feasible) it ultimately proved to be unusable.
    Yet only that E-208 camera had the right angle and was close enough to show the exact location of the foam impact on Columbia underside.
    Without it, the next best thing was military imaging of Columbia from the ground.
    Unfortunately it is a process that is so cumbersome and uncertain that Linda Ham dismissed it in favour of others means of investigation that unfortunately were not adapted. The gravity of the situation literally slipped between Crater results and Schomburg / Don Curry past experience with the shuttle thermal protection system.
    The CAIB inquiry showed that the Crater logiciel had never seen such impact before; as for experts Don Curry and Calvin Schomburg, they were sincerely convinced foam couldn't break very though carbon panels.
    Bottom line: only better imagery from the launch tracking cameras (and the exact location of the impact on Columbia) could have turned the tide. Military imaging from the ground couldn't do it.
    Last edited: Feb 13, 2013
  8. Luath I like Trains

    Jun 4, 2012
    CF 105 III cockpit
  9. Archibald space jockey ! Banned

    Jan 22, 2008
    Except for the Buran. I won't bring it back from the dead - more exactly from the depth of the hangar wreckage that crushed it in May 2002...

    I heard of that TL, and mind you the author is even a member of this forum.
    I found his TL randomly (the beauty of internet serendipity searches).
    I sought informations on the New Union treaty for another space TL I'm writting (which is a hundred time bigger than this one, but may be never finished...)
  10. Dathi THorfinnsson Daði Þorfinnsson

    Apr 13, 2007
    Syracuse, Haudenosaunee, Vinland
    Indeed. Thank you.
  11. Glenn239 Well-Known Member

    Oct 25, 2012
  12. e of pi Layers on Top of Layers

    Nov 27, 2008
    Halfway to Anywhere
    Canadaarm couldn't reach the area in question and didn't have the right cameras anyway. Only after the accident was the Orbiter Boom Sensor System provided, basically an extra 50-ft-long tube with a camera at the other end, and which actually allowed directly observing the belly and leading edge tiles from the Shuttle itself. Without it, Shuttle was blind to the condition of its own TPS.
  13. mattep74 Well-Known Member

    Jan 24, 2004
    This is intresting. Will this become the Apollo 13 of 2003?
  14. Glenn239 Well-Known Member

    Oct 25, 2012

    The debris struck the leading edge of the left wing, damaging the Shuttle's thermal protection system (TPS), which shields the vehicle from the intense heat generated from atmospheric compression during re-entry. While Columbia was still in orbit, some engineers suspected damage, but NASA managers limited the investigation, on the grounds that little could be done even if problems were found.

    The fatal damage was taken on the "leading edge" of the left wing and constituted a hole up to the size of a basketball. The Canada arm was situated on the left hand side of the shuttle, so could see the leading edge of the left wing, and no special camera of any type is required to spot a gaping hole up to 10" across.

    Ham's account (at least the one in this thread) mentions nothing about Columbia's crew being tasked to use the Canada Arm to inspect the left wing, at least where it could see. Therefore, she must have rejected both that option, and the option of an astronaut making a space walk attached to the Canada arm, but the reasons for that do not appear in her account above given above.

    The last sentence in the excerpted quote indicates the NASA managers had decided the shuttle was doomed if holed anyways, but this thread seems to suggest a rescue was possible, and that would be my inclination as well.
    Last edited: Feb 13, 2013
  15. Archibald space jockey ! Banned

    Jan 22, 2008

    Flight Day 3

    January 18, 2003
    Aboard Columbia
    (music: Duran Duran, Ordinary world)

    "Can you repeat ?" David Brown was surprised "Yes, me and Mike filmed the external tank after separation. Yesterday I already downlinked 35 seconds of video... you want more ? I have a minute or so, and Mike has even more." (1)
    He downlinked the videos. An hour later commander Rick Husband received an apparently insignificant answer. But...
    "There is one item that I would like to make you aware of. This item is not even worth mentioning other than wanting to make sure that you are not surprised by it in a question from a reporter during future media links with the ground." By the message tone the crew already knew at once that this could only mean trouble.
    "During ascent at approximately 80 seconds, photo analysis shows that some debris from the area of the -Y external tank Bipod Attach Point came loose and subsequently impacted the orbiter left wing, in the area of transition from Chine to Main Wing, creating a shower of smaller particles. The impact appears to be totally on the lower surface and no particles are seen to traverse over the upper surface of the wing. Experts are currently reviewing the high speed photography on possible concern for RCC or tile damage.

    Rick, we want you to show your left wing to the Air Force sensors. We want you to carefully maneuver Columbia to make that left wing visible for imaging. Unfortunately science experiments will have to stop while the imagery is taken.

    That is all for now. It's a pleasure working with you every day."

    Columbia crew members exchanged doubtful glances. There were times when ground control showed a curious insensitivity and lack of tact. If their thermal protection system was really breached, the truth was they would burn during reentry. There was no other way to put things.

    Johnson Spaceflight Center, Houston, Texas
    (music: U2, Still haven't found what I'm looking for)

    "We had a big foam loss like this on STS-50, and it impacted the silica tiles; yet only one was damaged, and that was it." Calvin Schomburg said
    "As for the reinforced leading edge panels, they are made of carbon and extremely though." Don Curry completed.
    The two men were top experts on the shuttle thermal protection system. They had decades of experience with it; they knew its weaknesses, but also how resilient it could be. STS-27 had been a proof of this.
    Wayne Hale could see how the experts opinion weighed on Linda Ham. There was nothing shocking with that - if one can't rely on experts, then what ?
    Anyway, Ham was restraining her decision until more information come. The military was in the process of imaging Columbia. They used some extremely powerful camera they had near Hawaii, and also a vast array of varied sensors, including spy satellites and ground radars.

    That day afternoon and evening were hectic. Schomburg and Don Curry voiced their opinions once again. Linda Ham also had results from Boeing Crater tests which were quite reassuring. The software was known to be conservative - read, pessimistic. General opinion was the results had to be somewhat "softened".
    In the afternoon Crater results told Linda Ham there might be damage, but not to what extend and whether it was life-threatening or not.

    And then the military called back. Hale was told they had gathered some impressive imagery. And then...
    "We found something else. Something unexpected."
    "What ?"
    "There is a debris following Columbia in orbit." (2)
    “A debris ?” Wayne Hale mind raced to a conclusion. That 39 degree orbit was only seldom used, meaning very little debris. By the way at the shuttle low altitude debris did not lived very long. Columbia was pretty much alone up there... the conclusion was obvious.
    "If there is any debris along the shuttle, well, it come from it. They had no EVA planned, so it is not a lost tool. They launched nothing from the orbiter either. Whatever, is your imagery coming ?"
    "It comes right now."

    Later in the day a high ranking meeting that included Ham, Dittermore, Hale and many others was held. The military sensors had done a superb job. The pictures were sharp; one could even see the Columbia lettering on the wing.


    (this is an OTL picture that was not requested by NASA; as such the shuttle commander did not maneuvered its orbiter to make the damage visible. How frustrating)
    Higher resolution here

    The photo sequence showed the orbiter rolling slowly, presenting its left wing to the camera. In the room many eyes focused on the greyish, ghost-like pictures.

    When the wing appeared there were muffled cries of exclamation, of shock and surprise.
    Wayne Hale had made an opinion. Surely there is something wrong with that leading edge.

    Don Curry and Schomburg reaction, however, was definitively a mixed one.
    "We admit there's something wrong there. The foam impacted, not the tiles, but the carbon leading edge panel." Don Curry said. Schomburg nodded his approval. The tiles were safe, so he had nothing more to say.

    "I remain convinced, however, that these panels are extremely though. I can't see them being breached." for a second he paused before continuing "To be honest, even as a top expert, that photo doesn't allow myself to be a hundred percent sure the panel is intact or dented." Don Curry concluded cautiously.

    Linda Ham was visibly torn. "I don't think the military can do better, however. In the end only a direct inspection from the shuttle itself could give us a clear view.

    You all know, however, that STS-107 features no robotic arm; that the Manned Maneuvering Unit has been discarded after Challenger; and that not even a classic EVA was planned during that flight, although fortunately we have two crew members trained for that."

    There was a brief moment of silence in the conference room. Wayne Hale knew that general opinion was that, if the the thermal protection system was really breached, there was nothing they could do. It was better not to think about it. Perhaps it would be better if the crew was blissfully ignorant of that reality, and carried their mission as usual until the very end ?

    Except that (frightening) option was already gone, since they had told Rick Husband the truth - because he had to maneuver his orbiter to ease the military imaging operation. Hale also remembered STS-27 and the crew anger, notably that mouthful Hoot Gibson.

    During the next twenty minutes a heated debate occurred in the room.
    Two mindsets clashed head-on: the usual, reassuring mission routine gradually died, but the opinion that there was nothing that could be done was obviously engrained.

    Yet another, different mindset was also present among people there. Wayne Hale could see many of them were frustrated not seeing that damn carbon panel clearly enough to say whether there was a hole in it - or not. He realized it was the same anguish and frustration Armando Oliu and his boss Bob Page felt, at Kennedy the days before.

    Beyond that temporary frustration, however, laid something much bigger - the will to do something for the endangered crew. At worse they needed a clear picture of that panel; more ambitiously they could try filling it, or even rescue the crew, Marooned or Apollo 13 style.

    The final decision, however, belonged to Linda Ham.

    At this very moment she delivered the speech that would define the rest of the odyssey; a sentence of it was repeated as common wisdom by almost every senior manager over the next six weeks.
    "Two days ago my feeling was - well if there was any real damage done to the wing, there is nothing we can do about it.
    "Now I can't stand that idea.
    "Even if there's nothing we can do to save the crew, I want them to know the truth. I really want to know whether there's a hole in that leading edge. This is paramount. As such we need a direct inspection by the shuttle crew. It's the only way to be sure. We need to know." Linda Ham said. "Well, if someone can imagine how to reach that damn leading edge panel underside without a robotic arm and without a MMU, please tell us." she concluded.

    "The best placed to know are obviously the astronauts. We will see a lot of them. We should ask any veteran and volunteer, and I have no doubt we will find many of them."Wayne Hale suggested.

    As the meeting broke out phone calls were made all over NASA and beyond.

    That January 18, 2003 in the evening marked the beginning of the most astounding rescue mission ever. What no-one foresaw, however, was how long it would last. It was Apollo 13 all over again, closer from Earth but quite paradoxically on a much longer period of time.

    (1) Another missed opportunity OTL. Astronauts actually filmed the tank in orbit, but their videos transmitted to the ground did not included the missing foam area. In fact they had actually more video that included the missing foam area, but the ground failed to ask them for more video. (see here)

    (2)[COLOR=Red] [I][COLOR=Black]The so-called Flight Day 2 object[SIZE=4][SIZE=4][SIZE=4], also known as [/SIZE][/SIZE][/SIZE][/COLOR][/I][/COLOR]2003-003B was probably the 6-inch piece going away
    The CAIB theory is that the foam had not only broke it,it also had pushed it more or less inside. Then on day two Columbia manoeuvered with its thrusters in orbit, shaking itself and disloding the bit of carbon that simply fell away. Worse thing is that Air Force radars tracked itbut lost the data until after the accident, when they checked everything in light of the inquiry.

    Last edited: Feb 14, 2013
  16. Archibald space jockey ! Banned

    Jan 22, 2008
    STS-107 did not carried a Canadarm !
    That thing is removable, if only because it is heavy, because the shuttle payload is already limited enough, and because all missions don't need it.
    Amen to that.
    The shuttle, yes, but not its crew. This is where the CAIB report (and that story inspired from it) goes WILD.

    Aaaand... we have a winner here. It will be Apollo 13 squarred or even cubed. :D

    Yes... and no. Of course Wikipedia can't go into as much detail as this article. (which inspired part of Flight Day 1).
    To make a long story short, everything hanged to the damn tracking camera at the Cape. It was the primordial burden of evidence - without it there was no way to convince Linda Ham (and others high in the NASA hierarchy) to change their minds and call for an emergency.
    OTL the cameras failed to provide a proof strong enough; here, they are doing a better job.
    The 1 million dollar proof would have been a video with a resolution good enough to show the exact impact location on Columbia, if not the hole itself. The E-208 camera could theorically do it, but failed per lack of maintenance (and budget).

    From this entry there will be a pop-dominated *soundtrack* attached to most chapters.
    Retroactively, Flight Day One would have The Verve Bittersweet symphony attached to it.
  17. Glenn239 Well-Known Member

    Oct 25, 2012
    Great link.

    That explains why that option was not employed. So, what happened to the space walk option? Your link says,

    ‘On Sunday, Rodney Rocha e-mailed a Johnson Space Center Engineering Directorate manager to ask if a Mission Action Request was in progress for Columbia's crew to visually inspect the left wing for damage. Rocha never received an answer.’

    And after the disaster,

    ‘In its study of these two options, NASA assumed the following timeline. Following the debris strike discovery on Flight Day Two, Mission Managers requested imagery by Flight Day Three. That imagery was inconclusive, leading to a decision on Flight Day Four to perform a spacewalk on Flight Day Five.


    ‘First, the team determined that a spacewalk to inspect the left wing could be easily accomplished.
  18. Archibald space jockey ! Banned

    Jan 22, 2008
    Flight Day 4
    January 19, 2003
    Aboard Columbia
    (music: The Verve, Lucky man)

    Michael Anderson and David Brown had been specially EVA trained for the mission, even if not extra vehicular activities were planned. You never know - for example, the shuttle payload bay doors might decide not to close automatically; in this case it would fell to Anderson and Brown to don a space suit and close them manually. Nothing, however, could have prepared the two men for the plan transmitted by the ground. They have never heard anything like this before.

    "Trapeze artists." Brown muttered.
    "What ?" a smiling Kalpana Chawla was helping him donning his space suit.
    "Trapeze artists. That what we are." he said in a deadpan voice that made Chawla and Anderson laugh.
    "But I'd better practice trapeze under a circus tent than on a shuttle payload bay door. This is crazy." Anderson poked.
    "Stop complaining" Chawla said. "Unlike trapeze artists you don't have to bother with Earth gravity."
    "That's fortunate." Brown added. "Mike, please forgive me. If I had knew we would play trapeze in orbit; that I would someday hang to your ankle while in orbit, then I would have entered a diet before entering that shuttle." They all laughed loud.

    Brown and Anderson carefully donned their space suit and entered Columbia airlock. It was build for only two astronauts, a number that fitted most of the EVAs (except for a memorable one, in 1992: in her first mission Challenger successor Endeavour had been tasked with capturing an relaunching a stranded Intelsat satellite. When the robotic arm failed to catch the monster, a little army of three astronauts performed a truly epic extravehicular activity).
    With the airlock depressurized they opened the hatch and floated outside the shuttle payload bay. It was filled with 43 000 pounds of diverse payloads; the Spacehab double module represented less than half of that mass.
    The Freestar experiment represented most of the other half. A big truss known as the Multipurpose Equipment Support, Freestar carried a row of standardized containers called Hitchhickers and Get Away Specials. NASA loaned the containers to universities and science laboratories all across the United States, which in turned filled them with science experiments.
    The containers weighed little, and they had little impact on the crew schedule. For example crew interaction with Get Away Specials resumed to flicking a switch and a little survey, and that was it. As secondary payloads, Hitchhickers and GAS cost very little and somewhat restored some lost promises the shuttle had never fulfilled; famously, that of making spaceflight cheap and popular.

    Now Anderson and Brown crawled along the shuttle payload bay door, in the direction of the supposedly damaged wing. The show outside was stunningly beautiful: Columbia equipment racks shone under the Sun, and the huge Earth curvature hanged above their heads, a little menacing. Earth size overwhelmed the imagination.
    Before the EVA David Brown space suit had been tweaked with two very unusual artefacts. First, he had an equipment tether (a rope usually not made for astronauts) strapped to his left ankle. As for his right feet - boot - he had towels strapped around it in order not to damage Columbia fragile wing.
    Now come the most amazing part of their adventure.
    Brown first grasped the shuttle payload bay door with his gloved hands, and extended his legs downward - until he had his feet floating slightly above the wing curvature. The orbiter delta wing was not a perfect triangle; at the junction with the fuselage it curved into long chines that extended in the direction of the cockpit.

    Anderson then used Brown as a human ladder; hanging to his fellow ankle, he was now looking at the upper side of the wing. He reported no visible damage to the ground, which was hardly surprising. Brown then carefully set his towelled right foot on the shuttle wing, allowing his comrade to float below Columbia wing. Anderson was now peering at the underside of an in-flight orbiter, something never done before.

    [​IMG](crazy, isn't it ? crazy enough it might have worked...)

    Because there was no EVA planned on the flight, no only had they no tools, they had no camera able to withstand the emptiness of space to film outside. The future of the mission, of Columbia and the crew - and perhaps of NASA itself - hanged to Anderson verbal assessment.
    As he looked at the leading edge underside, for a fraction of second Michael Phillip Anderson blood froze in place.
    He was looking at a gaping hole there.

    (results of the OTL test done during the CAIB inquiry)

    He looked again and again before reporting to the ground.
    "Houston, there's one big chunk of that leading edge missing. That's unbelievable. (1) The hole must be 6 inch wide - I can't make a better estimation. No damage to the tiles as far as I can see - but that RCC panel is a mess. So much for super-strength carbon fiber !"
    A true professional, Anderson spent long second burning his mind with the picture of the hole and leading edge. He may have had no camera, he still had an excellent visual memory he would put to good use.
    "We copied that. Good work, folks."
    "Returning to the airlock now"
    As soon as he exited his space suit Anderson requested a pen and a sheet of paper and from memory he started to carefully draw what he had seen. The six other crew members gathered around him with worried faces.
    Anderson sketch was scanned and immediately beamed to the ground, then the crew had another idea.
    "We should try and turn that sketch into Computer Generated Imagery NASA is more familiar with those days. Anyone gifted with photoshop here?" Commander Husband asked with good humour. A poll was held among the crew. That work on one of the onboard laptop computers was done under Mike Anderson watchful supervision, since he was the only one who had seen the real thing.
    For long hours the two astronauts laboured on the computer. The end result was worth the pain, however. Working from Anderson memory, they realized an impressive multidimensional shot of the damaged shuttle underside; one could enlarge or reduce or turn the wing in every direction. It was a neat piece of computing imagery. Even then however Anderson hand-made sketch remained important; it was the primordial, raw expression of his visual memory, something computer imagery could not catch.
    Down in Houston the astronauts paint and computing jobs immediately found their way into the hands of an army of experts. Much later their would go into history along Jim Lovell shots of the eviscerated Apollo 13 service module.

    (1) This an adaptation of Jim Lovell words describing Apollo 13 service module. I couldn't resist. :D
  19. Archibald space jockey ! Banned

    Jan 22, 2008
    Flight day 5
    January 20, 2003
    Aboard Columbia
    (music: The Cranberries, Linger)

    Commander Rick Husband reported to the ground.
    "Columbia power-down is now complete.
    • All payload and related equipment is powered off
    • A “Group C” systems power-down is performed
    • All cameraʼs, camera heaters, TV monitors, and video equipment off
    • One General Purpose Computer (GPC) powered for vehicle control, one GPC running 25% for systems monitoring, GPC 5 in sleep mode, GPCʼs 2 and 4 OFF.
    • One crew monitor (IDP and MDU) on 50% of time
    • 1 personal laptop computer powered 25% of time
    • Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) 1 is left ON, 2 and 3 are off
    • The crew galley is off
    • Avionics bay instrumentation is off
    • KU Band antenna is stowed
    • The Orbiter Cabin Air Cleaner (OCAC) fan is running at medium speed
    • FWD and AFT Motor Controller are unpowered until deorbit day.
    • Fuel Cell 3 and Freon Loop 2 are unpowered until deorbit day.
    This powerdown reduce the average mission power level to 9.4 kW.
    Protecting for 1 deorbit opportunity on the final day will result in a total oxygen capability of 34 days 10 hours. Carbon dioxide scrubbers, however, won't last past 30 days or February 15 in the morning."

    "Roger, Columbia. Hang on and try not to breath too much. Over."

    NASA Headquarters, Washington DC

    Quite inevitably Columbia unfortunate fate had leaked into the press. To cut rumours short a press conference was being held handled by the Public Affair Office (PAO - NASA internal system to deal with the press).

    "How much time do they have ?" a reporter asked.
    "Thirty days. That's the upper limit of both their oxygen and carbon dioxide scrubbers."
    "Does this mean that February 15 will be decision point ?" another shouted
    "It depends from a lot of parameters we are currently assessing."
    "But at the date, they will be forced to get down, or perish by asphyxia." the first reporter insisted heavily.
    "We are far from that moment and are working as hard as possible on the best possible scenarios."
    "Can someone else help ? Could the Russians send a Soyuz ?"
    "No. The Russians can't help because Columbia is on the wrong orbit. It is all a matter of inclination over the Equator. Columbia orbit intersect the Equator at an angle of 39 degrees; unfortunately Baikonur is set at 51.6 degrees, making a Soyuz rescue impossible. The ship, by the way, is too small, and the Russians have none in reserve."
    "And the International Space Station ? can't it act as a safe heaven ?"
    "No, for the same reasons as the Russians can't help. It is no coincidence that we placed the ISS at a 51.6 degree orbit; it's the only way they could access it from Baikonur.”
    "Couldn't the shuttle uses its big engines to reach the ISS ?"
    "No. The shuttle has five engines - three big SSMEs and two small Orbital Maneuvering engines (OMS). The SSME can't work without the external tank, and can't even be re-started in orbit. As for the OMS, they have internal propellant tanks, but very little energy. What matters in space is not altitude; it is what we call delta-V, measured in meter per second.
    To put things in perspective, Columbia OMS provides at best 0.5 km per seconds of delta-V, but the ISS is 4 km/s away. As counter-intuitive as it may seems, moving Columbia to the ISS orbit would take as much energy as sending it into lunar orbit !"
    "So does this mean NASA is on his own, much like happened with Apollo 13 ? How can a crew be out of reach so close from Earth ?"
    "I wouldn't say we are on our own. Unlike Apollo 13 a lot of countries can technically help."
    "You mean that others countries could send survival packages to the stranded crew ?"
    "Yes and no. No, because what they all lack is last mile delivery. Unguided packages wouldn't help, since the shuttle couldn't catch them."
    "Doesn't the shuttle feature a robotic arm ?"
    "Most of the time, and according to the mission, yes. But the Canadarm is heavy, and as such it is removable. Columbia doesn't carry one."
    It took a long time, but the press conference finally died per lack of questions.

    Johnson Spaceflight Center, Houston

    As the day advanced rescue planners divided into two opposite camps - repair Columbia or mount a rescue flight ? Yet time was flying fast; the crew needed a plan, or at least something to do to kill time. A decision had to be made very rapidly.
  20. Glenn239 Well-Known Member

    Oct 25, 2012
    That doesn’t sound correct. The shuttle should be able to maneuver to the package if it is placed close enough.