Columbia Shuttle Crew Could Have Been Saved, Says NASA Engineer

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Space Shuttle Columbia Commander Rick Husband, left, and Israeli payload specialist Ilan Ramon in the Columbia, January 21, 2003, in a photo supplied by NASA.. Credit: Reuters

The fated crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia could have been saved in theory, according to a NASA engineer, who spoke to the BBC.

Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon and six other crew members perished when their space shuttle attempted reentry into Earth's atmosphere on February 1, 2003. However, its fate was sealed just seconds into the launch when a lump of foam came loose during takeoff and punctured the leading edge of one of Columbia's wings.

David Baker, who worked on the shuttle program, told the BBC that during research for an upcoming lecture at the British Interplanetary Society, "he studied plans that suggest that a dramatic and audacious orbital rescue mission could have been launched – if only Mission Control had known about the danger in time."

According to Baker, the Atlantis space shuttle was close to being ready for a March 1 launch when Columbia lifted off on January 16. Columbia only had enough supplies to keep the astronauts alive for 30 days, so a rescue mission would have required recognizing the problem by Day 2 and speeding up the preparation schedule for Atlantis from six weeks to four weeks.

If that could have been accomplished, then Atlantis could have been sent into an orbit bringing it within six degrees to Columbia at a 90 degree angle – requiring skilled piloting to prevent the tails from colliding. With a reduced crew of four astronauts, while two of them would pilot the Atlantis, the other two would begin the rescue, first bringing over lithium hydroxide canisters to reduce life-threatening carbon dioxide levels on the Columbia. Then the Atlantis astronauts would position an extendable pole between the two shuttles to guide the crew of the Columbia to safety.

Two by two, the Columbia crew would spacewalk to the Atlantis, in a process that would take at least 48 hours because of the time it takes to don a space suit and avoid a fateful mistake when moving from airlock to airlock, explained Baker.

So why did NASA never attempt such a rescue mission?

“The big mistake was not having a sufficiently detailed and intensive analysis soon enough,” Baker told the BBC. “It just didn’t appear the damage was going to be that bad until, as evidence built day by day, it became very clear.”
Another issue was that NASA did not display the "failure is not an option" attitude that saved the lives of the Apollo 13 astronauts when their spacecraft was damaged on the way to the moon in 1970, added Baker.

“It would have been possible but frankly the mindset at NASA was so rigid compared to the lightening decisions and quick responses we had during Apollo,” he said.

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