Image: Columbia
By the time Mission Control knew something was horribly wrong, it was too late. But what if they'd known earlier?
By NBC News space analyst
Special to msnbc.com

As hindsights and “what-ifs” about the Columbia disaster continue to accumulate, questions just won’t go away about what, if anything, NASA might have been able to do to prevent the catastrophe had it known in advance how bad was the damage to the wing.

The movie “Apollo-13” is essentially a quite accurate account of what Mission Control is capable of in a space emergency. But most of the “emergency” procedures depicted in the film weren’t on-the-spot improvisations. They were actually the fruits of a lengthy preparatory process in which flight controllers, hardware engineers and astronauts engage in “practice what-iffing” well in advance of the flight.

I used to do it myself. Until leaving the job in 1997, I flew shuttle missions from Mission Control. I was there from the first drop tests of “Enterprise” to the first orbital missions of :Columbia” in 1981. Then I helped prepare and perform Challenger’s first orbital maneuvers and rendezvous missions with other satellites, all the way to designing the orbital choreography of the initial International Space Station linkup. We had our share of worries and emergencies, and fast thinking usually made the difference.

Leroy Cain, the NASA flight director on duty when Columbia was lost, told me recently that “what-iffing” was still a serious part of preparing for every space mission.

“We went through many difficult failures and tried out many recovery procedures in training,” he said, “and that prepared us to react constructively to a real crisis.”

“In hindsight we now know that many of the things we did were futile,” he said. “On a different day, they wouldn’t have been.”

But what could have been done? As the nature of the Columbia catastrophe became clear, thousands of engineers and space enthusiasts across the country joined Cain’s colleagues in trying to think of emergency procedures that might have made a difference in the flight’s outcome.

Could the crew have inspected, or even repaired, the damage? Could they have changed course and taken shelter aboard the International Space Station? Was there a “softer” way to hit the atmosphere, perhaps by leading with the sound wing to give some relief to the damaged one? Or could they have been rescued by another shuttle? These ideas occurred independently to thousands of people.

Scenario one: A spacewalk
Take, for example, the idea of making a spacewalk to inspect the area of suspected damage. NASA officials said there was no proven method of doing that, since the two spacesuits on board were only there for repairs inside the payload bay. The crew had no jet backpacks to fly around the shuttle, and no robot arm to position themselves in sight of the bottom.

But the flight controllers I’ve talked with after the disaster had no doubts they could have thrown together a workable plan in a day or two, if asked. They would have first completely checked it out in ground simulation facilities, such as the giant water tank where floating spacesuited astronauts mimic zero gravity, and then told the crew what to do.

The trick would be to break some safety rules, but not too many. One astronaut would unhook his or her safety line from the shuttle, and the shuttle would fire its thrusters to gently move about 200 feet away. It then would roll 180 degrees, turning its belly to the free-floating astronaut. Sure, he or she would probably be slowly turning end over end in space. But he or she would be able to eyeball the area of suspected damage and take digital still images and zoomed video. Then the shuttle would slowly roll another 180 degrees and move back to retrieve the astronaut, like a giant catcher’s mitt enveloping a pop foul.

The flight controllers I talked to were horrified by the Columbia disaster, but frustrated as well.

“We never got a chance to do what we do best,” one spacewalk expert lamented.

They had notebooks full of tricks, and minds trained to generate new ones as needed. They just didn’t have time, this time, to even try.

But would such an inspection have revealed anything? Whether through an astronaut’s eyes or the lens of a small self-propelled space spy camera, through a spy satellite or ground-based surveillance telescope, any insight would only have been as good as the actual view. But what was there to see?

It appears that many of tiles came off the shuttle as it flew over California, indicating that perhaps few, if any, had originally been knocked completely free during launch. Many others may have been damaged but remained in place, which would deceive any visual inspection.

Space station out of reach
Flying over to the International Space Station, either to get inspected by its crew, or to seek shelter there, was never an option. Such a flight was physically impossible because the orbits of the station and the shuttle were in different directions through space. Where their paths crossed, they were at angles too sharp for the shuttle’s limited rocket fuel to “turn the corner” and match orbits.

This situation wasn’t the arbitrary result of blind choice. The station is in a northerly orbit that allows access from Russia’s rocket base in Kazakhstan — and that access is now the station’s only lifeline. The 16-day Columbia mission was on a flight path designed to let it launch and land during daylight at Cape Canaveral, a powerful safety concern. The different requirements demanded incompatible orbits.

Scenario two: Flying differently
Was there a gentler way to fly Columbia back into the atmosphere? Cain was asked last week by reporters if there were some alternate flying tricks that might have relieved, at least in part, the thermal stress on the left wing.

For example, if the left wing’s thermal protection was known to be compromised, could the shuttle enter the atmosphere “crabbed” a little to the side? It would scorch the heck out of the right wing that tilted into the fire, but would it have made a difference for the injured left wing?

“It’s theoretically possible,” Cain said, but added that his teammates didn’t think it would have worked because such a move would have only a small effect on the heat load.

“There are lots of things you can do,” he said, “but they don’t necessarily solve your problem.”

Worse, Cain said, “You just lead to potentially other problems.”

In this case, the “good” wing might have scorched through its own tiles, damaged its steering jets or suffered some other unanticipated damage. The balance of an unknown pile of new risks vs. an uncertain current risk would have been a decision nightmare.

Scenarios three: Rescue shuttle
Another suggested scenario was rescue by another shuttle. If Columbia could have stayed in space long enough, and kept its crew alive long enough, perhaps the next scheduled shuttle mission could have reached it.

This sort of space rescue is the stuff of which science fiction movies are made — and, in fact, one was, the 1969 film “Marooned.” And it’s the sort of “impossible” contingency that the Mission Control team (and their “bolt-turner” buddies on the launch crews at Cape Canaveral) could really sink their teeth into.

Maybe the next shuttle, scheduled for a flight in March, could have been accelerated to launch in less than two weeks. Major shortcuts and added risks would have been required. Fueling would have been more hazardous and equipment less thoroughly checked. Work shifts would have been long and would overlap, threatening procedural oversights.

Meanwhile, once it was determined that Columbia was badly — even mortally — wounded and could not safely return to Earth, it could be sacrificed to save its crew. Major systems could be powered down to conserve electricity (they would be ruined by the cold of space, but no matter).

Keeping the crew alive that long wouldn’t have been easy. The “long pole” would have been the chemicals to absorb the astronauts’ exhaled carbon dioxide. This is the gas that kills people in closed spaces, such as children trapped in old refrigerators. Carbon dioxide accumulates in your blood and turns acidic, killing your brain cells.

There is only a finite supply of CO2-absorbing canisters on any shuttle mission. Even if old ones were dug out of the trash and CO2 levels were allowed to get so high as to be painful, a cold-blooded calculus could have told NASA that there wouldn’t be enough air cleaning supplies for all seven astronauts to wait for the earliest-possible shuttle rescue. That’s when “short-straw time” arrives, and we move back into science fiction.

No time
But on the day that Columbia was lost, there was no time to invent a new procedure or to try something utterly innovative and amazing that had been dreamed up in anticipation of such a bad day. The continuing agony of the Mission Control team, and of all space workers, is to ask what indicators they overlooked or misinterpreted, if any. Did they miss an opportunity to “what-if” their way around the crisis, to try something, anything, to break the chain of disaster? Or — and it is a meager consolation — was this just the kind of bad day that even Mission Control was powerless to forestall?

James Oberg, space analyst for NBC News, spent 22 years at the Johnson Space Center as a Mission Control operator and an orbital designer.

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