Columbia: Logistics of a Second Shuttle Staging a Rescue

According to a NASA official today, a second shuttle (Atlantis/Endeavor?) was scheduled for a launch in about one month.

IF, NASA had ordered the Columbia crew to remain in orbit and await a hail-Mary rescue, how quickly could NASA has accelerated the planned launch of this second shuttle? Since the crew is already trained, couldn’t the science pack/cargo pack be left behind, the shuttle (slowly) wheeled out to a launch pad, be carefully fueled, go through the (lengthy) checklist sequence, and then be launched?

My understanding of NASA’s current policy is that, if a few key shuttle tiles peel away from an orbiter, that orbiter and its crew is lost–and nothing can or will be done to save them. Why not build the possibility of rescue into this equation? Obviously, NASA doesn’t want to imperil a rescue crew in an attempt to save another, but why be so fatalistic?

Also, how might a rescue crew transfer the crew from a distressed shuttle? Robotic arm? Having two shuttle craft 50 feet from one another in orbit, at 17,500 mph, is indeed an unpleasant proposition, but couldn’t it be pulled off, if necessary?

I seriously doubt it. Even IF they could get one up that quick, I don’t think they have the capability to monitor and support two shuttles on orbit simultaneously. Regardless of whether they could or not, the risks involved in shortcutting a month of preparation would offset any chance of rescuing the crew already stranded in space.

The speed over ground is immaterial. The important speed is relative to each other. if that is zero, then what is the problem?
Space rendezavous have been done since the days of Gemini. Without rendezavous and docking, the moon landing would have never happened, or Mir, or the ISS.

Could the first, damaged shuttle have docked with the ISS (assuming the damage wasn’t to its docking apparatus), unloaded the crew who could have then been picked up by the 2nd?

All speculation is pointless now, of course. I would assume NASA has rescue contingencies for just about any scenario. I also doubt the reentry would’ve been made if they knew something was wrong.

Also, it seems that if loss of a few key tiles was so critical, there would be some sort of redundancy or safeguard built into those areas.

No, they could not have docked with the ISS. Their orbits are so far apart, Columbia wouldn’t have nearly enough fuel to punch into such a high orbit, unless it was part of the mission plan. That, and they would have no way of docking with the ISS. If I’m not mistaken, with Spacehab in the payload bay there would be no place for the Pressurized Mating Adapter to connect to the shuttle’s airlock. Maybe they could have each suited up and made an EVA across, but that would still require jettisoning Spacehab… At any rate, it doesn’t matter, because Columbia couldn’t get there in the first place.

IIRC, the Columbia is/was the only shuttle unable to dock to the ISS.

It’s just a matter of risk engineering. There are always things you could add to a shuttle to make it safer, but each thing you add cuts down on payload, until eventually you wind up with a very safe shuttle that can’t do anything.

If you flew every shuttle flight with enough fuel for it to match orbit with the ISS, or with enough consumables for the shuttle to be able to stay aloft long enough for a rescue, then you’d drive the cost per pound to orbit through the roof, and make the shuttle far less practical.

The same kinds of decisions are made with cars, airplanes, etc. All of them could be safer. With each one, we’ve decided how much we wanted to pay for safety and accepted the risks.

I’m pretty sure it was able to fly missions to the ISS, if it carried a smaller cargo load (around 1/2 to 2/3 the payload weight, iirc). Since the main reason for the shuttles to go to the ISS is to add modules and carry large amounts of supplies, that made it undesirable to use Columbia.

Of course, that’s all if they planned a mission from the start to go to the ISS. Since Columbia was already in an incompatible orbit, there’s no way it would have been able to make it to the station. It also didn’t have a docking hatch installed.

As far as moving up the launch of a second shuttle, it’s conceivable they might have been able to shorten the countdown from a month to a week or two, if they were sufficiently motivated. So if they’d known from the first day of the mission that they had a serious problem, they maybe could have launched a rescue mission before the crew ran out of consumables. I mean, it’s a more plausible plot than Armageddon. :slight_smile:

However, aside from getting the shuttle ready to go, the crew and support people would have to toss out the mission they’d been training for for a year or two to plan and train for a totally unexpected and dangerous new scenerio. And since Columbia didn’t have a docking port (and I don’t think two shuttles could get their ports close enough together to dock even if it did), all the Columbia astronauts would have to make a space walk, which I don’t think any of them had trained for. Maybe not impossible, but pretty risky…


Someone said “engineered risk.” Well, our space program is exactly that. So are alot of things that we routinely do. But, we could engineer the risk down to nearly nothing if we wanted to. If we do the numbers, we see that there are lots of cars on the road, but comparitivley few wrecks. There are also many planes in the air, but very few plane disasters. We could, if we wanted to, make very safe space shuttles, with extra provisions, ejection capsules, and more safety measures; while maintaining cargo capacity, range, capability etc.

It’s the new millenium, we can engineer the risk down now.

If they don’t have the capability of monitoring 2 flights, then they can stop minitoring the one already up there and in trouble. They know where it is, and they know they can’t fix the problem from the ground. So really, all they need to monitor are a couple of voice radio frequencies. I can’t speak to the increased dangers of shortening the turnaround time.

But I can tell you one thing. If the crew in the damaged orbiter DID have sufficient supplies to live until the next orbiter launched, the next launch WOULD be a rescue mission. Politically, it couldn’t be anything else. Imagine one set of astronauts waiting for the clock to run out, while another set zips by not far away performing zero-g rat experiments. Not an acceptable picture. In fact, NASA would cancel the next mission outright rather than present a picture like that.

As for the logistics of an actual rescue, I think there’d be a very good chance of success. All the astromauts have pressure suits, whether they plan to leave the vehicle or not. Though you couldn’t dock the vehicles, you could place them within easy reach of the robot arm. They could climb along it, most of the way, and catch a thrown rope.


Could the Russans send a rescue vehical or even use the one parked at the ISS?

I think that rescue scenarios are so far down the chart as to be very improbable.

First, you’d have to know a problem existed. Then, the problem would need to be fixable on orbit. Then, you retrain the next Commander and Pilot that was scheduled to go up as the rescuers, leaving behind the payload specialists to have empty seats. Then, you launch and pray your accelerated preparations don’t kill the rescue crew. Rescue crew, at the very least, evacuates damaged shuttle crew into vacant seats in the rescue shuttle, or fixes damaged shuttle back to flight status.

That’s a lot of things piled on top of one another. NASA is capable, but there are things that you can’t fix on orbit right now. If we had funded the space stations that NASA wanted much earlier, I bet we could have had some real shuttle service capability in orbit by now.

Some of these issues are being discussed here:

Shuttle crew helpless to inspect orbiter?!

(Yeah, maybe I put it in the wrong forum…) :smack:

All this naysaying of our engineering not being up to this seems awfully defeatist. It’s amazing that we went from gaping stupefied at the Russian achievement of Sputnik to a manned moon landing (and return!) in twelve years (with it taking half of that just to get Glenn in orbit); but nevertheless we did it, with 50s/60s engineering, and the resources of a significantly poorer (less rich anyway) country.

It’s all a matter of national will. It’s not that we’re not up to it - it’s that we have other priorities as a nation.

I think some important points are being missed.

First, NASA apparently chose not to inspect the orbiter from a ground-based telescope. It has been done before and, though such inspection might not have yielded good data, it should have been attempted. I mean, what the hell is the downside of getting more information so as to make the most informed decision possible? NASA’s default position, according to NASA officials who have been interview so far, is that the senior technical people chose not to inspect the orbiter telescopically because (a) they had no assurances that doing so would yield good info and (b) there was no way to rescue the shuttle crew.

This is ridiculous. Making life-and-death decisions based on willfully incomplete evidence–when vital information might have been obtained through telescope–is bad science and bad policy.
Apparently, the ground crew, much like during the Challenger disaster, made some critical calculations based on very incomplete data and then arrived at a bad decision. Basically, they were guessing and that guess can’t be said to be educated because they lacked the needed information.

Why not risk a (dangerous) EVA to inspect the orbiter? Why not inspect the orbiter by telescope? Why not delay their landing and simultaneously accelerate the second shuttle’s liftoff–sans experiements?

NASA techies forgot to factor in the most critical variable–that of a catastrophically terminated shuttle flight and the resulting political implications. From what it appears now, they simply didn’t act prudently, and seemed to have learned little from the Challenger disaster.

According to NASA, another shuttle launch had been scheduled for March 1, 2003.

One month away. Certainly this could have been accelerated to, say, two weeks.

It is certain if ground control knew early in the mission the problem and it would be fatal, sometime would have been changed. A remote chance of survival is better than no chance, and the public would have demanded it, even if it meant a large risk of losing additional lives.

As the moderators want a fact-driven discussion, please reference this, which shows that NASA has indeed resorted to rather unorthodox procedures, when situations warrant:

Associated Press Writer

Posted November 24, 1997

SPACE CENTER, Houston – The plan calls for two astronauts to dangle outside the space shuttle Columbia and catch a 3,000-pound, slowly spinning satellite with their hands.
Still, heading into tonight’s daring satellite rescue, NASA’s top concern was a collision. And the risk, mission operations representative Bob Castle said, was '‘very, very small.’
’‘The shuttle is quite maneuverable in close,’’ Castle said. ‘‘So as long as you keep track of where the object is and keep track of your rates, this is not really a risk in my mind.’’

The plan called for astronauts Winston Scott and Takao Doi to head out to the open cargo bay, fasten their feet to a platform with straps and lean back as the shuttle closed in on the Spartan satellite. NASA said the six-hour spacewalk might include a 90-minute wait before the satellite was within perfect grabbing range. Astronauts have caught satellites by hand before, and in tougher situations. The last time it was done, in 1992, three spacewalkers managed to grab hold of a 9,000-pound satellite.

Sorry for the multiple posts.

Use of Shuttle Robot Arm

The Shuttle’s robot arm is used for various purposes.
· Satellite deployment and retrieval
· Construction of International Space Station
· Transport an EVA crew member at the end of the arm and provide a scaffold to him or her. (An EVA crew member moves inside the cargo bay in cooperation with the support crew inside the Shuttle.)
· Survey the outside of the Space Shuttle with a TV camera attached to the elbow or the wrist of the robot arm.