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Official Would've OKd Shuttle Rescue

NASA's human spaceflight chief says he would have backed the mission if the extent of Columbia's damage had been known.

May 22, 2003|Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writer

The chief for human spaceflight at NASA said Wednesday he would have approved the launch of another space shuttle to rescue the crew of Columbia if he had known the extent of its damage and that the crew was doomed.

A high-stakes effort to rescue the seven astronauts would have involved risks never encountered in the 40-year history of human spaceflight, according to astronauts, space engineers and an internal study that NASA is conducting.

Although the issue may seem academic, it is central to NASA's future because such a rescue mission is likely to be a key safety option once shuttle flights resume. William F. Readdy, NASA associate administrator for spaceflight, said the agency believes these rescue missions are possible. Readdy's statement also is a powerful acknowledgment that the agency had erred in thinking that nothing could have or should have been done to save Columbia, even if the agency knew the orbiter had catastrophic damage.

NASA was already preparing another space shuttle, Atlantis, at Kennedy Space Center and could have rushed it to the launchpad if the agency was willing to discard the usual procedures and regulations, according to a senior engineer at the launch site.

The Atlantis orbiter was mated to its external tank and solid rocket boosters by late January, a process that could have been accelerated if NASA officials had recognized the gravity of Columbia's problems in the days after the Jan. 16 launch, said the engineer, who asked not to be identified by name. Indeed, by Jan. 18, NASA had convened a team to assess whether Columbia's left wing had been damaged by foam debris, and a quick decision could have allowed for a launch of Atlantis by the second week of February, he said.

At the same time, Columbia's crew could have stopped all unnecessary activity, preserving its supplies of water, food, fuel and air. Columbia's crew could have stayed alive until at least Feb. 14 and possibly days longer, the engineer said. The window for a rescue would have been tight, but such a mission was not impossible.

NASA had on hand at Kennedy Space Center the 400,000 pounds of liquid hydrogen fuel needed for the mission, according to its supplier, Air Products. After each mission, 50 tanker trucks refill the giant spheres that store the fuel.

Custom software needed to launch Atlantis could have been cobbled together from the Columbia mission and experienced pilots would have known how to fly the complex rendezvous needed to reach the imperiled shuttle, according to former astronaut Robert "Hoot" Gibson.

Up to two days of maneuvering with rocket thrusters are typically needed to rendezvous with other orbiting systems, such as the space station or the Hubble space telescope, Gibson said. Much of the navigation would be directed from the ground, and experienced shuttle pilots would need little supplemental training to execute the flight, he said.

The two orbiters would have flown in close formation, but could not physically dock. A means of getting the crew from one ship to the other would be needed. NASA's internal study envisions using a solid pole that would have been connected to both payload bays. But Gibson suggested a tether that could be kept taut by firing of rocket thrusters periodically.

"It's crazy enough that it just might work," Gibson said.

NASA officials are scheduled to present their internal rescue scenario to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board today. It was requested by the board's chairman, Harold Gehman Jr., as part of the panel's work that would help NASA better understand safety options for future spaceflights.

Readdy said the rescue scenario would have called on NASA to do "things well beyond our experience base." He added: "You would have to say this would have been at best a risk-versus-risk trade. There are some places where we would have made some stretches." A night launch would have been required to make the rendezvous, he said.

Based on the rough draft of the internal report, Readdy said he would have demanded more work to refine a plan, but in the end would have approved it and sent his recommendation to NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe. Because no contingency plan exists for a rescue mission, it is unclear who would have had authority to approve it.

"As head of the human spaceflight program, it would have been Readdy's decision to make," said Glenn Mahone, NASA's chief spokesman. "But he would have consulted with all kinds of people above and below himself."

Mahone said Readdy's comments are consistent with recent statements by O'Keefe that NASA would have done anything possible to help the Columbia crew. But in the immediate aftermath of the accident, Ron Dittemore, space shuttle director who has since resigned, said nothing could have been done.

"We asked ourselves, is there any other option? There is no other option," he said at a news conference in early February.

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