It's time to get realistic about the Columbia "rescue"

Published in the Houston Chronicle, June 8, 2003


Cunningham, a Houstonian, was a member of the backup crew for Apollo 1, served on the Apollo 1 Accident Investigating Committee and flew Apollo 7, the first manned Apollo mission. His book, The All-American Boys, is currently available in the bookstores.

Since a proposed scenario was first leaked and then released that "NASA could have staged a rescue mission had managers recognized that fatal damage had been done," it has become the source of great speculation. All official releases from NASA and the investigating board have emphasized the necessity for management to have been aware of "mortal danger" and to have learned of the lethal wound "almost immediately." Both of these qualifications were physical impossibilities for the incident in question. Former astronauts and others have entered the debate, so I will add my two cents worth. It's time to talk some sense before the media gets too carried away with Buck Rogers rescue scenarios emanating from both inside and outside of NASA that may be technically possible but absolutely impractical in the real world.

You are on the side of the angels if you argue that NASA could have saved the crew of Columbia had they only made the correct decision when they analyzed the insulation strike on the orbiter. But that would be wishful thinking, and that serves no one well. In holding out false hope, even after the fact, NASA runs the risk of losing more of their credibility, which the agency can ill afford. The fact is no one can be absolutely certain one way or the other. I am only interested in realistic scenarios that could have been applied in real time.

The Columbia disaster has frequently been compared to the Apollo 13 oxygen tank explosion. The thinking goes, since NASA saved Apollo 13, they should have been able to save Columbia. But Apollo 13 is not a good analogy for Columbia.

Apollo 13 experienced what I characterize as an objective emergency. Saving the lives of the crew was principally dependent on measuring consumables and developing procedures to conserve them for four days. The consumables would either be sufficient or they would not.

I characterize the Columbia disaster as a subjective emergency, dependent more on opinions and judgment calls for critical decisions than on objective measurements.

A most important factor that has received little or no discussion to date is the following:

After-the-fact analysis, made with the knowledge the crew was doomed without outside intervention, is decidedly different from any analysis made in real time. In real time, with death only a potential consequence, emphasis is on mitigating the problem. To put it bluntly, reckless schemes are a luxury for second-guessers.

NASA's rescue scenario assumes information is "miraculously" obtained during the first week following the January 16 launch of Columbia and that it would support a decision to launch a rescue mission. Implicit in this analysis is the sacrifice of the Columbia to a watery grave. It also assumes Columbia's consumables could be stretched to last for 30 days-until 15 February. This was probably doable with a little compromising of safety standards here and there. It would have required immediate cessation of crew activities, which would seem to rule out the EVA essential for confirmation of damage to the thermal protection system.

A spacewalk faced obvious complications. Columbia had two spacesuits but no maneuvering units and no robotic arm. NASA would have had to conclude the severity of the damage very early, within a few days, in order to develop and check out procedures for an emergency spacewalk inspection. They would have had to conclude the precise opposite of what their conclusions were in real time-a near impossibility.

The Columbia EVA portion of the plan would be difficult and possibly more risky than usual but the gravity of the situation would justify the added risk. Exposing Columbia's crewmembers to unusual risk is much more justifiable than imposing unusual risk on the crew of the Atlantis rescue vehicle-even though they would certainly have volunteered.

Repair would be much more difficult than observation, with a vanishingly small chance of success. The proposed wing repair would be woefully inadequate to survive the 3,000 degree heat of reentry. It has already been confirmed that no modification of the reentry attitude or trajectory would have reduced the heating enough to have changed the outcome.

Of course, no repair would be required if rescue was the best option. That is why the investigation is focusing on staging a rescue operation.

In order to find a live crew, Atlantis would have to complete all critical pre-launch safety checks and still launch no later than February 12th. Atlantis pre-launch prep would have to be cut from 38-40 days to about 20 days. Doing so would violate many, many procedural rules established specifically to insure crew safety. This was probably possible but it assumes no glitches in checkout or countdown.

A crew would have to be trained for the mission, which raises the question: "Which crew?"

It also assumes NASA would commit to launching the $3 billion Atlantis and exposing it to the same unknown, potential damage that was fatal to Columbia, before fully understanding the cause. That could be considered a reckless decision and NASA is noted for not making reckless decisions. However, it may be justified if there was a reasonable chance of a successful rescue.

If, in the end, it was unsuccessful, it could be considered just one more example of bad decision-making by management.

This entire scenario of launching Atlantis and abandoning Columbia, would require enough evidence to justify the biggest decision in manned spaceflight history-dumping Columbia in the ocean.

Admiral Harold Gehman, Chairman of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, has admitted, "The mission would be very, very risky, but not impossible."

In the real world, we have to deal with real facts. The insulation strike was noticed on day two. It would (and did) take two to three days for analysis to decide the strike could have dealt a mortal blow to Columbia. With this suspicion, NASA would move to obtain confirmation by high-resolution earth or satellite based cameras.

It would take several days, possibly a week to obtain satellite pictures. Keep in mind, at this point, NASA would be trying to confirm or disprove a suspicion not to document a disaster. The odds are rather high, for a number of reasons, that the pictures would be non-conclusive.

It would take at least 2-3 days to develop procedures in the water tank, rehearse and safely perform the emergency EVA. I believe an EVA, with pictures, is the only observation that could support a decision to launch Atlantis and abandon the Columbia. Unfortunately, there is an excellent chance that EVA pictures would also be inconclusive, triggering more analysis.

Columbia would then be 8-10 days into its mission, it's the 25th or 26th of January, and it is decision time. NASA must decide to:

A) Attempt a reentry or attempt a repair and then reenter. In either case, we now know Columbia would be lost! Or,

B) Launch Atlantis prior to 12 February, which is difficult if not impossible and certainly risky; perform a number of dangerous and risky EVAs; and dump the $3 billion Columbia into the ocean.

NASA would feel better for having tried the rescue and the media would love the story but the odds against pulling it off are higher than winning the Powerball Lottery.