Spaceflight fatalities, could anything have been done

Note: I am not asking what additional precautions, things done differently before flight have saved the crew. In this question the flights launch the same way as before and the same problems arise. The question is whether the crew/ground support could have done anything

  1. Soyuz 1. Parachute did not fully deploy, landed at lethal speed.
  2. Soyuz 11. Value leaked in space.
  3. Challenger: O-Ring failure.
  4. Columbia: Tiles knocked off during launch, destroyed in reentry.

From my own layman view: Soyuz 1 was fucked. Soyuz 11, the crew from what I have read did not realize what was causing the leak until it was too late. Challenger was too quickly for any assistance and Columbia might have survived if the crew had flown a different reentry profile?

Damn, wrong forum. Please mods move to GQ and sorry about this.

No, I don’t think a “different re-entry profile” could have saved Columbia.

On Challenger they could have looked at the data, listened to Roger Boisjoly and stopped the flight.
Once it took off it was doomed.

In both NASA events, the management culture was the key enabler in the events (eventually labeled “normalization of deviance” by Diane Vaughn, a sociologist who studied the cultural environment at NASA leading up to Challenger:

Things happen that break the organization’s own explicit safety standards (O-rings harden when chilled, and in fact had already shown evidence of almost burning through in earlier launches; foam routinely breaks away from the fuel tank and strikes the wing leading edge surfaces at high velocities, but hadn’t caused significant damage before). But because catastrophe doesn’t always happen when you violate your safety standards, management “normalizes” these deviations, mentally relegating them to the “harmless” category although objectively, they could be catastrophic.

I think it’s the same mindset of anyone who continues to engage in risky behavior because they don’t get burned or caught… until they are.

ETA: In the Challenger case, as zoid points out, many of the line engineers hadn’t normalized the deviances of the behaviors of the SRB stacks in cold weather, but Boisjoly was essentially trying to convince a management culture who had already decided that SRB joint seal leaks were basically harmless. So Cassandra prophesies the downfall of Troy, but no one listens because they’re already internally convinced otherwise.

What penalties would NASA face by delaying a launch? Was there a lot of external pressure to keep launch dates that may have contributed to hasty decisions?

It was noted in a different thread that the skin of the orbiter had been punctured where the tiles were knocked off, exposing the structure within during reentry. Nothing could have saved her.

At the time of the Challenger disaster NASA was trying very hard to project the image that the Shuttle was a safe, reliable, and routine transportation choice to space. The Air Force had their own program to develop space vehicles but shortly before the Challenger disaster NASA was able to convince Congress to cancel funding the military programs for space and funnel those funds to NASA alone. NASA had a long list of projects they needed to accomplish in space and in order to appease Congress and prove to the public that they were safe they decided to send a civilian into space. NASA made a big deal about promoting the mission but there were several very visible delays. It was extremely embarrassing for the NASA brass so they were pushing heavily to just get the shuttle up at all costs.

The part that was damaged on Columbia during the ascent phase of STS-107 were not the insulation tiles on the bottom and part of the top side (it is common that a few tiles are lost during ascent or reentry) but the reinforced carbon-carbon panels that protected the leading edge of the delta wing structure. This is a crucial distinction because the tiles merely protect against the incident radiation coming off the “bow shock” (and therefore doesn’t experience significant direct contact with the hot plasma during the initial reentry phase), but the RCC panels actually experience direct impingement of the air compressed as the Orbiter reenters. This “ram compression” that occurs at the shock front causes extreme heating that is conducted directly to the leading edges in addition to the aerodynamic loads experienced, and because of the narrow form factor, the heating from radiation is concentrated, making protection of this area critical. The canteloupe-sized hole in the RCC panel allowed hot gas to enter and impinge directly on the aluminum wing structure, causing it to lose structural integrity and fail as soon as aerodynamic loading on the wing became significant. With that kind of damage there is no possibility of surviving reentry with any flight profile. The Orbiter thermal protection systems (TPS) was arguably the second most challenging part of the STS design after the RS-25 Space Shuttle Main Engines.

It is true both that Boisjoly had previously identified failure of the o-ring as a potential catastrophic failure mode based upon examination of data and recovered motors from previous flights, and that he strenuously objected to the launch of STS-41-L due to the cold preflight temperature, which was both below past launch history for the STS and outside of the motor qualification range. However, it is worthwhile to note three additional items before awarding Boisjoly the “Gotcha!” card:
[li]Boisjoly correctly identified o-ring blowby and erosion due to joint gapping and lack of low temperature resiliance of the Viton seal as the root cause of a failure. However, the specific failure mode identified by Boisjoly was that loss of o-ring sealing would result in loss of joint integrity and result in catastrophic rupture of the motor case. In fact, while the predicted blowby and o-ring erosion did occur, the SRM itself did not fail in a functional sense, and in fact maintained integrity even after the SRM broke away from the External Tank and tumbled end over end for 37 seconds, right up until the point that the Range Safety Officer issued the flight termination tones and destructed the motors. STS-41-L failed because the hot gas jetted through the joint and cut into the support strut and LH[SUB]2[/SUB] tank, which then caused thrust misalignment and resulting structural failure of the ET and Orbiter due to aerodynamic loads. Boisjoly himself stated that he expected the SRM to explode upon ignition (when both the peak pressure and presumed highest potential for gapping occurred) and was relieved to see the Shuttle take off, only then to observe the failure, albeit not the one he predicted. [/li][li]The concern about the temperature was based upon the variation of blowby and erosion seen during different ambient temperatures. However, one of the worst blowby incidents occurred at a pre-launch temperature of 75 °F, which is well within the qualification range and at the upper range of previous experience. The specific phenomena that caused blowby were not fully understood at that time (even by Boisjoly who performed the original 1985 analysis) and so there was not a conclusive techincal threshold at which the motor was unfit for flight (though, being outside of the qualification range argues that they shouldn’t have flown regardless of the specific concern). This leads to third point, to wit:[/li][li]Although the failure is widely attributed to the cold ambient pre-flight temperature, the reality is that ground wind patterns caused cryogenic oxygen vented from the top of the ET to pool in that specific location as demonstrated by post-accident CFD analysis. In addition, STS-41-L experienced the highest wind shear ever seen during a Shuttle launch, and in fact wind loading was near the GRAM-99 three sigma “statistical maximum” that we would design to today. So, while this failure occurred at the coldest pre-launch temperature, it very possibly could have happened at higher ambient temperatures with other similar conditions. [/li][/ol]The sum total is that while Boisjoly was correct about the root cause and had previously demonstrated that the joint design was flawed, his specific predictions about the failure mode was incorrect, and in fact this failure could have occurred on any flight.

Similarly, the failure on STS-107 wasn’t something particular to that flight profile or aging of Columbia, but just a statistical happenstance or what we call a random failure. The fact that it hadn’t happened was taken as increasing evidence that it couldn’t happen when the reality is that every flight was at the edge of the cliff, i.e. the “normalization of devience” that gnoitall mentions. This is why “flight qualified” or “flight proven” are misnomers; no real flight will hit the coincident extreme conditions with sufficient confidence to envelope all maximum possible loads and environments (MPE), and even if it does it will not provide any margin for variability in build quality or system integrity. This is why unit and subsystem qualification testing, while laborious and expensive, are crucial (but not exhaustive) to assuring launch vehicle reliability, as is post-flight analysis and resolution of issues.

Unfortunately, getting to a test-demonstrated root cause on every anomaly is an Herculean effort, and actually resolving every problem (rather than applying a band-aid fix or monitoring the condition) often requires fundamental redesigns that seem cost-prohibitive as long as you can convince yourself that the vehicle will operate okay. I can pretty much guarantee that every large rocket launch vehicle every flown has experienced anomalies and has multiple design weaknesses that could potentially result in failure. This isn’t to excuse the failure of both NASA and Thiokol management for recognizing and addressing this particular design flaw prior to the loss of Challenger, but as even a cursory look over the history of issues with the STS there are many more inherent failure modes which could have resulted in catastrophic loss of crew and vehicle. Rocket launch vehicles, by design and essential function, are full of single failure points. The STS, by virtue of its particular complexity (parallel stages, large cryogenic tanks, winged orbiter, lack of bail-out capability though SRB operation) is particularly problematic and serves as an object lesson for why you should not make a vehicle more complex than necessary (e.g. require a large wing area for unnecessarily high cross range capability), and also why your first design should not be your production design.


So, given that the Columbia itself was doomed, was there any possibility of rescuing the crew? Suppose someone had happened to do a spacewalk that mission and said “Oh, hey, guys, there’s a big hole in the wing!”–would there have been any way to, say, launch another orbiter and bring the crew home before they ran out of something vital up there?

Moved from CoCC to GQ, as per request of OP.

Ronald Reagan has a State of the Union speech that night of the Challenger disaster. I’m not saying that had anything to do with the the decision to launch that bitterly cold morning, but I’m not saying it didn’t either, if you take my meaning [wink wink]

It’s not often that I have the opportunity to nitpick Stranger on a Train concerning rockets, but the Challenger’s final mission was STS-51L, not 41L.

Of course, Feynman figured it out pretty early on:

Probably a significant number of people inside NASA saw the pattern well before Challenger, too.

Wink all you like, but NASA went through the standard chain of flight readiness reviews and risk assessment processes with no indication that anything was out of the norm. The CAIB investigation (informally known as the Rogers Commission after its chairman) found no evidence of any pressure from the White House to maintain schedule due to the State of the Union Address, and while there was a lot of publicity with Christa McAuliffe as a crewmember, there was no particular reason why they had to fly the mission before the Address, nor would it make sense for NASA management to launch the STS in conditions in which they thought it might have an elevatd chance of failure on such a high profile mission. The reality was that NASA management had become complacent with regard to that particular issue and ignored the technical recommendation of an engineer, then pressured the contractor to do the same because acknowledging the issue would have large downstream impacts upon capability or cost. To put it colloqually, they rolled the dice on this risk, and they happened to come up boxcars, which ironically is the same thing they are being criticized by space enthusiasts for not doing now.

I stand manifestly corrected.

No. At the time of the STS-107 mission, Discovery was undergoing the Orbiter Major Modification program, Endeavour had just returned from STS-113, and Atlantis was being prepared for an ISS assembly flight. Given that STS-107 had been in orbit for over 15 days, near the end of the Extended Duration Orbiter duration (nominally 16 days, can be stretched to 19-20 by selective operation of various systems), thre is just no practical way that Atlantis could have been readied for flight in time to rescue the crew of Columbia (which was a factor in the decision not to try to do any kind of spacewalk to inspect the impact area). Although NASA, and mission integration manager Linda Ham recieved a lot of bad press for not effectively dealing with the incident (deservedly so), the reality is that there is nothing that could have been done other than to inform the astronauts of the likelihood of failure upon reentry.

And to address the queston of the o.p., the crew are basically cargo on both the ascent and return. Except for the final gliding phase of reentry, the vehicle is controlled by the flight computers and software. There is just no way for a human pilot to integrate the large number of inputs and respond quickly enough to control rocket or hypersonic reentry vehicle, nor can ground-based launch control really do anything but monitor and report.


Is there anyway they could have made it to the ISS, or did they not have enough fuel?

Also, say a shuttle was ready to, do they have a way of transferring astronauts from one shuttle to the other?

The only thing that could have saved Soyuz 1 would have been not launching a Soyuz capsule with a crew until an unmanned launch actually succeeded. There were several previous unmanned launches before Soyuz 1 and every one of them failed in some way that would have been lethal to the crew. Russia decided to push ahead with a manned launch anyway. Soyuz 1 suffered multiple failures of power and navigation systems in orbit, and had to be brought back down manually after the automatic guidance system failed. The parachute failure was only the last failure of a machine that really wasn’t ready to fly.

Yep. Happened nearly instantly, nothing anyone could do. The deaths could have been prevented if the crew had been wearing spacesuits, but that version of the Soyuz didn’t have room for three suited cosmonauts.

Not that I speak for all space enthusiasts, but it’s not quite the same:

  • It’s one thing to take risks, and quite another to lie to yourself and others about those risks. Safety-wise, the Shuttle was not too out of line compared to the risks that, say, test pilots (knowingly) take. It was way out of line for anything that a civilian like McAuliffe should take, especially when they aren’t aware of the real risks.
  • NASA can and should be taking risks for unmanned missions.
  • Unlike all manned rockets, the Shuttle had no proper launch escape system. Was a LES deemed unnecessary due to NASA’s self-deception about Shuttle safety? Who knows? The point is that it’s not so bad when your rocket blows up if the crew stays safe.
  • Even if the Challenger accident cannot be definitively tied to launching outside the qualification range, it’s still a bad idea, and yet NASA management culture allowed it to happen. It was the wrong kind of risk to take. Let’s limit ourselves to unknown unknowns, at least.

Not by a long shot. Columbia on its last flight was in a very different orbit from the ISS.

None that’s ever been tested. Shuttles can’t dock to each other. There’s a theoretically possible method where you have the two shuttles with their cargo bays facing each other and then have someone throw a tether across, which someone on the other side catches and secures. You can then cross from one to the other along the tether. It’s never been tested and honestly is really only something you’d do if the alternative is certain death from a failed reentry.

If they had happened to spot the damage at the beginning of STS-107, could Atlantis have been gotten ready in less than 20 days? (And could they have gotten together whatever would have been needed in the way of equipment to transfer the crew off of the Columbia?)

(I know for at least some of the post-Columbia missions they did have a second orbiter on stand-by for a rescue mission. But I don’t know how remotely feasible it would have been to get something like that together on the fly.)