The Rescue Scenario

Shortly after the accident, during the third week in February 2003, a few of us contemplated if a rescue mission of Columbia’s crew could have been conducted. If it could, what were the chances of success?

Under the guidance of Shuttle Program managers we were asked to quietly study it. We were to conduct our studies in part to satisfy our own curiosity and in part knowing the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) would no doubt ask us one day. The Flight Directors at Johnson Space Center (JSC) would do the on-orbit assessment, and I would do the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) operations assessment. The two would combine to answer the unfriendly—but necessary—question.

My part concluded that from a pure timing perspective, a rescue was theoretically possible. The result from JSC was the same: theoretically possible. But both required unrealistic assumptions and actions that were not consistent with the mission being flown, or usual program priorities or objectives.

Rescue would have involved having us launch Atlantis—next in line to fly—as soon as possible, rendezvous with Columbia, transfer the astronauts via some sort of tether to Atlantis, and come home. The crew of seven from Columbia would be aboard Atlantis with her rescue crew of four. Four of the crew members would have to ride home strapped to the deck; there were only seven seats on the orbiter. Columbia herself would then be guided to a ditching in the ocean.

At the time of the accident, Atlantis was almost ready to roll out of the Orbiter Processing Facility to the VAB. A full-court press to expedite that and get to the launch pad would be required. The Pad “flow” would be truncated to only those tasks required, the rest omitted to save time. Things like the Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test and cryogenic loading simulation would be eliminated. Other required tasks would be done three shifts per day, seven days per week. Meanwhile, the rescue scenario flight plan would be developed at JSC.

Assuming no significant glitches, launch could have been as early as February 11. This also assumed no significant processing or launch delays occurred, including weather. That also assumed that Atlantis would not have her remote manipulator arm installed, which was almost certainly needed for a rescue mission. Installing the arm would have pushed the earliest launch date to February 13.

If everything went according to plan—and that was a BIG if—the rescue would have happened two days before Columbia‘s consumables ran out. Columbia would have been in orbit for almost a full month by then, two weeks longer than any previous Shuttle mission.

The key to the entire study was that consumables on board Columbia needed to preserved as much as possible, extending Columbia’s time on orbit awaiting Atlantis’ arrival. Food, water, etc. all needed to be stretched to the max. The limiting commodity however were the lithium hydroxide (LiOH) canisters needed to scrub carbon dioxide from the cabin air. Not food, not water, not power, but the ability to provide breathable air for Columbia’s crew.

The assumption made for the study was that we needed to put the crew on alert for extending LiOH no later than Day 4 of the mission. The crew would have had to go into a very low activity mode to keep their respiration as low as possible. This would have had the effect of terminating the mission’s objectives, effectively ending the reason for the mission. To do this would have been one of the unrealistic moves required. AND, to even get to this posture would have required either proof that the Orbiter was fatally damaged by that day, or assuming so. That was another unrealistic assumption, since the request for additional imagery didn’t occur until Day 6 of the mission, by which time it would already have been too late to conserve the consumables.

But when the two studies were combined, we saw that it would have been technically possible to rescue the crew. That’s the cold, data-driven answer. The truth is that the assumptions I mentioned above, and a few others, would have required extraordinary efforts in both ground and mission operations AND management decision making while we were lacking definitive damage information. All this would have been far outside the normal Shuttle practices at the time.

It should also be noted that the decision to actually launch the rescue mission would have been an extraordinary thing in and of itself. Would we commit a crew of four on Atlantis to rescue Columbia’s, crew possibly facing the same damaging foam loss during its launch? A tough decision to say the least, bigger than NASA alone could make. I believe the President would have had a role in that decision.

But it never got to the point that we’d find out.

No rescue mission was ever contemplated during Columbia’s time on orbit, let alone one early enough to give it a fighting chance of success. We just didn’t have the evidence to support making such a decision, and there was no realistic way in which we could have had that evidence by the time that decision needed to be made.

The CAIB asked us about the scenario in early May 2003. Admiral Gehman, a superior leader, intentionally waited to ask the question until some of the raw emotions had time to subside a little.

When we saw the analyses, there was no grumbling, but there was grief. We couldn’t save the ship. Columbia was doomed, no matter what. Maybe we could have saved the crew. But there were so many what-ifs and assumptions, so many things that had to go completely differently from the very first hours of the mission. Would it have been successful? I don’t know. But we never even had the chance to try.

As much as it hurt people to think about the remote possibility of saving Columbia’s crew, the study helped prompt discussions on how to save a future crew of a damaged shuttle. The studies led to the safe-haven scenario, in which damaged Orbiters could dock at the International Space Station to enable the crews to wait there for a later rescue mission.

KSC and JSC used the Columbia rescue scenario to design a one-time rescue mission that could back up the final Hubble servicing mission. After the successful completion of STS-121 in July 2006, proving that we’d finally solved the foam-shedding problem, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin formally approved the Hubble servicing mission.

On May 11, 2009 Atlantis was poised for launch to the Hubble from Pad 39A at Kennedy. Standing on Pad 39B two miles to the north was Endeavour, ready to go into orbit if there were any problems with Atlantis. For the first and only time, NASA had two shuttles in launch countdown simultaneously. We were ready to launch Endeavour one day after Atlantis if necessary. Tremendous dedication and work went into getting us to this dual launch posture. Fortunately—like many other things in the space business—this contingency capability was assured but never needed.

Atlantis’s flight went flawlessly, so the rescue mission never flew. Atlantis’ crew successfully prolonged Hubble’s life and upgraded its instrument package.

In a roundabout way, Columbia had once again contributed to the advancement of scientific discovery.

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On Pad A (foreground), Atlantis awaits launch for the STS-125 Hubble servicing mission, while Endeavour (STS-400) sits on Pad B for a possible rescue mission. (NASA/Troy Cryder)

Remembering

“It is today that we remember and honor the crews of Apollo 1 and Challenger. They made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives in service to their country and for all mankind. Their dedication and devotion to the exploration of space was an inspiration to each of us and still motivates people around the world to achieve great things in service to others. As we orbit the Earth, we will join the entire NASA family for a moment of silence in their memory. Our thoughts and prayers go to their families as well.”
–Rick Husband, January 28, 2003, on board Columbia during STS-107

Apollo 1. Challenger. Columbia. And the other astronauts who gave their lives in the pursuit of the final frontier.

We pause this time every year to remember them, thank their families, and rededicate ourselves to ‘do it right.’ The passage of time matters not. We owe them this and so much more.

This year NASA unveiled a new memorial to the Apollo 1 crew at the KSC Visitor’s Center in the Apollo/Saturn V building. I saw it yesterday. It affected me in two ways – it’s just as moving as “Forever Remembered” for the Challenger and Columbia crews and, secondly, I’m not alone in thinking ‘it’s about time.’

But let me explain.

Displaying debris from the Shuttles and the hatches from the Apollo capsule was not a NASA decision. It was first and foremost always at the sole discretion of the crew families. NASA may request it, but THEY decide it. And it must be unanimous for each crew as a whole. And so on this 50th anniversary of the fire that killed Grissom, White, and Chaffee their families agreed it was time to honor their loved ones. For this guy, I’m glad they did. It completes our feeble attempt to thank them all.

Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke told a story today about one of his visits to a factory making components for his flight. He saw a man sweeping the floor and asked him what his job was. The man responded, “I’m helping to put men on the moon.”

He was not a floor sweeper. He was a member of the Apollo team. Perfect.

The memorials to the fallen astronauts should be required viewing by everyone in the business.

It can’t help but to instill or reinforce that floor sweeper’s attitude in each of us.

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The new Apollo 1 remembrance gallery at the KSC Apollo/Saturn V Visitors Center (photos by Mike Leinbach)

Astronaut Veterans

On this Veterans Day, I found myself wondering: How many astronauts served in the US military?

America’s first astronauts were all active-duty military servicemen. Of the original  Mercury Seven, three were Navy men (Shepard, Carpenter, and Schirra), three were from the US Air Force (Grissom, Cooper, and Slayton), and one (Glenn) was a Marine. The next group of astronauts included America’s first civilian astronaut (Neil Armstrong), although he was a former Naval aviator, a veteran of the Korean War.

Test pilot experience was a requirement for the first two groups of astronauts. Military pilot experience was allowed as a substitute for test pilot experience in the third group. It wasn’t until the fourth group of astronauts, “The Scientists,” selected in 1965, that NASA waived military pilot experience for astronauts—although astronauts in that group had to train to be pilots if they didn’t have flight experience.

The last class of astronauts selected, 2013’s “8-Balls,” has six active-duty military officers among the eight members of the class.

All told, 219 of the 330 former and current American astronauts served in the armed forces. All branches have been represented, but there have been more astronauts from the Navy and Air Force than the other branches.

It’s hard to beat the knowledge and experience gained in military service. Courage, commitment to public service, teamwork, maximum performance despite physical and emotional hardship, calm focus in the face of danger, comfort with complexity, attention to detail—traits that make a good serviceman or servicewoman are those which also make a good astronaut.

The crew of STS-107 included five active-duty US military astronauts and one active-duty Israeli military astronaut. Commander Rick Husband and Mission Specialist Mike Anderson flew for the US Air Force. Pilot Willie McCool and Mission Specialists Dave Brown and Laurel Clark had extensive experience with the US Navy. Ilan Ramon had flown combat missions with the Israeli Air Force, including the attack on Iraq’s Osiraq nuclear reactor. All told, the five aviators on Columbia‘s crew (Husband, McCool, Brown, Anderson, and Ramon) had over 17,300 hours of military flight experience.

I’m the proud father of an active-duty Army officer with three deployments to Afghanistan under his belt, and my brother served for several years in Vietnam. I’m deeply humbled by the sacrifices undertaken by brave men and women in service of their country. I can never adequately express my gratitude to the members of our armed forces who help keep our world safe and our country free. And I offer a special “thank you” to those whose sense of service and courage took them into outer space for the betterment of mankind.

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