If the shuttle is stranded in orbit...

…is the crew doomed? It would take months to ready another shuttle, right? Could Russia possibly send up a rescue? Soyuz can only hold 3 people.


If the space shuttle Discovery is damaged during its planned launch on 1 July, NASA has devised several options to try to keep its crew safe.

But if the shuttle is damaged critically by a foam impact during launch – as was Columbia in 2003 – it will try to dock with the International Space Station. There, Discovery’s seven astronauts would join the two crew members aboard the station in a refuge programme called Contingency Shuttle Crew Support (CSCS)."

If there’s a serious problem while they’re up there, they’ve got the rest of their lives to figure it out. Incidentally, I served with one of the crewmembers years ago, Steve Lindsey. Think he’s either the Commander or the pilot this time around. Great guy. I’m a little nervous about this launch–some problem with the foam has been detected, but they’re still preparing for the launch. Really hope they think this thing through…and do whatever it takes to get our guys home safe.

To expand on that, it’s fairly easy to put together the necessary number of Soyuz launches to recover the stranded astronauts. At any given time RKK Energia has on the order of half a dozen boosters and spacecraft at various stages of assembly and can (allegedly) integrate an entire stack inside of a month. (The benefits of working with a proven and mature technology; had the Air Force gone ahead with Blue Gemini–Soyuz’s contemporary–we’d probably have the same capability.)

This isn’t really a good excuse for the continued reliance on the STS, though. Despite manifest problems and a “no-go” assessment by the safety chief and chief engineer, NASA’s intention to continue flying is an illustration of the agency’s unwillingness to acknowledge and address safety issues in a reasonable manner. Given the issues that have come to light over the past four years–and we’re not just talking about foam–the STS fleet should be grounded permanently. NASA should have been developing a replacement vehicle long ago, of course, but the X-programs were underfunded and overconstrained, leaving us using the Soyuz and Progress vehicles as a stopgap. And owing to NASA’s paradoxical risk-adverse/safety-ignorant attitude, developing an effective replacement system–i.e. CEV–will likely take far longer than projected, even though the main booster (build from Shuttle SRB segments) is for all intents and purposes a COTS item. “Winning” the space race was the worst thing that ever happened to NASA, both from an attitude/planning and funding perspective.


Or at least, stop putting people on them. Since we have them right now anyway, is there any reason not to keep sending them up unmanned?

As for the Space Station contingency plan, in case anyone’s wondering, that was not available on Columbia’s last flight. Even if they had known that there was a problem, they didn’t have enough fuel to match orbits with the Station. It’s more expensive to launch into an orbit which can rendezvous with the ISS, so they don’t do it unless they’re planning on going there.

Columbia was “too fat” to ever dock with the ISS, so it wasn’t like they could have simply added more fuel to the tanks to allow it to dock, if before launch they thought that there could be a problem. Columbia also didn’t have the dock gear on board, and IIRC, the suits they were carrying wouldn’t have protected them for the trip over. They certainly didn’t have enough of (or probably any) of the jet packs that would have made the trip easy.

My understanding of the last Discovery launch a year ago, and of this one, is that Atlantis is basically ready to go within weeks (or days?), if another situation like Columbia’s last flight were to arise. Atlantis is scheduled to fly in August anyways - I’m sure they could send it up if necessary. I don’t know if this is the plan from here on out, or just a convenient coincidence. Does anyone know?

I also don’t know if two shuttles could couple to get people from one to the other, but I assume a series of spacewalk could do the trick? I just remember a year ago there was a lot of talk about Atlantis being on standby.

Of course, Atlantis is under the same foam (and other) risks as Discovery, which raises the possibility of having two stranded shuttles… Awful thought.

I admit I’m in the sentimental camp, that doesn’t want to see the end of Hubble, or these shuttles grounded, but my reasons for it are purely sentimental. I do recognice that it’s time to move on.

I’d love to see one of these shuttles in real life, in a museum or something. How cool would that be? (I have been in the model of Endeavour, though, in Laval QC)

Well, that’s not a bad idea in some ways. Despite the flight failures, STS propulsion systems are mature, with 290 successful launches for the SRBs since the Challenger disaster, and 3115 flight successes for the Shuttle Main Engines (SME). However, you have to consider the cost-per-pound to orbit, for which the Shuttle has never compared favorably to even the most expensive disposable system. The smart thing to do would be to salvage and use STS propulsion hardware and guidence/control systems for a disposable launch vehicle like the Shuttle-C or the SDLV/Ares V, which is in fact the plan for CEV. The cost of refitting the Shuttle for unmanned flight, the parasitic weight penalty of the lifting body and reentry shielding, and the cost of handling the system argue against its use, although as it stands it is currently the only vehicle in inventory capable of delivering ISS components (which were designed around Shuttle bay dimensions and load limits). And then there is the real risk to public safety of failure on reentry. We were lucky with Columbia that the STS remained essentially on the glide path even as it broke apart and that no one was seriously injured or killed by falling debris, but an out of control reentry in the upper atmosphere could send the vessel thousands of miles beyond the safety range and hundreds to cross range.

So, while the mentality that “we have them, we might as well make use of them” seems economical and pragmatic, it may be less costly and less hazardous to retire the fleet now. This assumes, of course, that we can wait in the interim for a replacement personnel transporter and heavy boost vehicle, which would slide our committments to ISS by several years. That begs the question, IMHO, of whether we should continue to support the ISS at all, given that its primary purpose is to give the Shuttle someplace to go.

With regard to emergency evac to ISS, it’s not just Columbia that couldn’t make it, but in fact any Shuttle mission which isn’t deliberately planned for the ISS or near to it isn’t going to be able to reach safe haven. The ISS is in an ecliptic intended to be reachable by Soyuz booster from Baikonur, and as such is a costly orbit for the Shuttle to achieve. It’s also afar from the Hubble’s orbital plane, which was one of the negs against a post-Columbia Hubble refurb mission.

While the Shuttles have far outlived their questionable usefulness, a service mission to Hubble, if it could be done sufficiently cheap, would be a good option. Despite nearing twice its deisgn lifetime, Hubble still does a lot of good science (at least, insofar as the ailing alignment control and data transfer systems will allow) and refurbing it will allow it to continue to be used for applications in the visual spectrum that the James Webb orbital telescope is ill-suited for.


As you suggest, however, that means abandoning both the Hubble telescope and the International Space Station until an alternative vehicle is developed. There are components waiting to be delivered to ISS that can’t be delivered by Soyuz. ABC News reported that the shuttle program is committed to 16 more ISS-related missions.

Hubble’s batteries need to be changed regularly, and only the shuttle can do that right now. It also needs occasional repairs.

I agree that it’s absolutely ridiculous that NASA hasn’t developed a better alternative to the shuttle fleet. I don’t neccesarily agree that this means we should just stop using the shuttles altogether.

An article about a “lifeboat” for the ISS.

Remember the opening credits to The Six Million Dollar Man, anyone?

Several concepts for robotic Hubble service missions have been proposed. While they’ve all been rejected for potential operational problems, I’m not convinced that it’s not feasible. Human service missions, while flexible, depend on human endurance limits in microgravity and vacuum which are very real and problematical. And all proposals I’ve seen come it at less than the cost of a Shuttle launch.

The original plan with the STS–which pretty much everyone agreed was a flawed compromise, but the best thing we could get into orbit in the post-Apollo era–was that Columbia, Challenger and Discovery were to be essentially development test beds and prototype vehicles to be followed by evolutionary improvements to the platform making them more functional for various operations (fractional orbit launches for Air Force satellites, High Earth Orbit with transstages, heavy boost lifters, et cetera.) Even a NERVA-type SME-replacement was planned for the Shuttle to give it greater I[sub]sp[/sub] and higher altitude than chemical engines. And the original plans called for incremental improvments in the (known) flawed thermal protection system. Instead, all of that got cut during the early Reagan era (along with the most functional parts of Space Station Alpha, the Mars mission, et cetera) in favor of more pragmatic defense funding, resulting in the effective developmental dead end we have today.

The problem with maintaining Shuttle launches and supporting the ISS is one of opportunity cost; NASA has a (very) limited budget, and Shuttle launches and ISS support eat up the lion’s share of it, with negligable scientific or technological payback. It’s a Fool’s Game; we keep polishing the brass cannon because it pays well and offers good benefits, even though it doesn’t actually get us anywhere we need to go.

The Shuttle has some very serious operational flaws, most of which have been known about for years but haven’t (until Columbia) resulted in catastrophic failure. That’s more than just a platform problem; it’s a cultural problem within NASA, and to extend further, into a government agency dependant up on politically-motivated funding. Part of that motivation is to deny that there are any real problems with the Shuttle that can’t be fixed by modifying operational procedures.

IMHO a pragmatic look at the returns on the ISS/STS program would minimize our losses on the ISS and decomission the STS as quickly as possible, while implementing an interim personnel transporter (something like CEV), while long term looking to develop a truely reusable succesor to the Shuttle that improves upon its obsolescent technology. Instead, we’re continuing to run the Shuttle as long as we can and looking toward the interim step as a long-term replacement for the STS.


That’s an excellent point. And a great way to rally support for a new vehicle is to have Hubble die. The more I think about the absurdity of the shuttle program, the more convinced I am that you’re right.

The link would’ve been nice, right? :smack:


If you can’t make a trip down to the Kennedy Space Center around the time of a launch, go to the Udvar-Hazy annex of the National Air and Space Museum (near Dulles Airport). They have the original prototype orbiter Enterprise on display; you can walk all around it. Awesome. Much bigger than it looks on TV.

And the museum itself is catnip to aerospace buffs like me: a Concorde, an SR-71, WWI fighter planes, a DC-3, an F-4, etc., all on display. Great gift shop and an IMAX theatre, too. Well worth a visit.