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NASA Debates Goodbyes for a Crew Lost in Space

If agency had known the shuttle was doomed, should the astronauts have been told? Would they have wanted to know, and to call home?

June 01, 2003|Marcia Dunn | Associated Press Writer

SPACE CENTER, Houston — Days before blasting off, the seven astronauts discussed the possibility of being stranded in orbit because of a disastrous fuel leak.

It was an informal conversation among the space shuttle crew, almost on the level of joking to lighten the dead-serious topic. But they talked about how, if space junk punctured and drained their fuel tanks, they might find themselves circling Earth, out of gas and waiting for the power to fade and the air to run out.

And, yes, making one last call to their families.

As it turns out, their shuttle -- Columbia -- avoided orbiting shrapnel and landed safely last year. But on Columbia's next flight, one year later, the craft broke apart during reentry, killing all seven aboard.

"It could have been any of us," said Columbia's next-to-last commander, Scott Altman.

After four months, accident investigators have yet to settle on a cause. But they suspect that Columbia was doomed from the start by a chunk of foam insulation that broke off the fuel tank at liftoff and smashed into the leading edge of the left wing.

Now that time has passed and emotions are not as raw and egos not as intrusive, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board is looking into what NASA could have done to save the five men and two women if the extent of the wing damage had been known early on.

And that has raised an unsettling question: If NASA had known during the 16-day mission that the shuttle was mortally wounded, would it -- should it -- have informed the crew and arranged a last call home?

"Ummmmm, talk about being uncomfortable," said Milt Heflin, head of the flight director's office at Johnson Space Center.

There are no rules at NASA for this sort of thing, according to Heflin.

"I mean, we're talking what they do in Hollywood," he said. "I don't need to go any further than that because I just don't know what we would have done."

But NASA's own flight surgeons have been trying to force a discussion of such troubling contingencies since long before the Columbia accident. The technical types -- flight directors, engineers, rocket scientists -- need to think about this more, especially with astronauts living aboard the international space station, Dr. Terry Taddeo said.

"You have to raise people's consciousness," Taddeo said. "I can't imagine any other way of doing it than having an event like this, for better or worse. People have to be taking it more seriously now."

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who flew aboard Columbia as a congressman in 1986, just days before the Challenger disaster, contends that the seven astronauts should have been told more about the foam strike and the engineering analysis that went into absolving it while they were in orbit. He chastised NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe on the matter during a hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee last month.

"To cut the crew out, you're eliminating a great resource," Nelson said.

It would be a shame not to take advantage of all that brain power in orbit, said Dr. J. D. Polk, a NASA flight surgeon.

"We're talking about a lot of PhDs and doctors and people with master's in aerospace and people with a lot of operational knowledge of the vehicle. We might have been able to think of something," Polk said. "Plus, I think the crew would probably want time to talk to the families and get things squared away in their minds and with their families, as to how the family is going to continue on."

What Altman and his crew would have done, had something gone amiss last year, was "do the best we could as long as we could and let everybody on the ground figure out if there were any options." If there were none -- and NASA contends there would have been few, if any, for the astronauts who went down with Columbia on Feb. 1 -- Altman says he'd try landing with the full understanding that the shuttle and crew might not make it.

First, though, he figures that he'd want to make one last call to his family.

Eileen Collins, NASA's only female space shuttle commander, also finds the subject difficult to contemplate. Her flight aboard Atlantis to the space station should have been completed by now, but is on indefinite hold because of the grounding of the shuttle fleet.

Would she want to know in orbit that her days were numbered? Would she want one last radio hookup with her husband and two young children to say goodbye?

"I don't know, I don't know," she said softly, shaking her head.

Chuck Shaw, a former flight director who is working on NASA's proposed orbital space plane, says astronauts and flight controllers can't help but think, at times, about the worst that could happen -- and has happened twice in 22 years of space shuttle flight.

"It runs through your mind," Shaw said. But "it's not very productive to dwell on getting into a scenario like that. I fixate on how to avoid getting into that problem in the first place."

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