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Could Columbia's Crew Have Been Saved?

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board has released its report (available here). In one of the more interesting passages, the authors write of the possibility of rescuing Columbia's crew, had requests for inspection of possible tile damage been heeded. Two possible strategies are mentioned, on-orbit repair and rescue by another shuttle, but only the latter is considered viable. A hypothetical timeline is presented:

Following the debris strike discovery on Flight Day Two, Mission Managers requested imagery by Flight Day Three. That imagery was inconclusive, leading to a decision on Flight Day Four to perform a spacewalk on Flight Day Five. That spacewalk revealed potentially catastrophic damage. The crew was directed to begin conserving consumables, such as oxygen and water, and Shuttle managers began around-the-clock processing of Atlantis to prepare it for launch. Shuttle managers pursued both the rescue and the repair options from Flight Day Six to Flight Day 26, and on that day (February 10) decided which one to abandon.

The NASA team deemed this timeline realistic for several reasons. First, the team determined that a spacewalk to inspect the left wing could be easily accomplished. The team then assessed how the crew could limit its use of consumables to determine how long Columbia could stay in orbit. The limiting consumable was the lithium hydroxide canisters, which scrub from the cabin atmosphere the carbon dioxide the crew exhales. After consulting with flight surgeons, the team concluded that by modifying crew activity and sleep time carbon dioxide could be kept to acceptable levels until Flight Day 30 (the morning of February 15). All other consumables would last longer. Oxygen, the next most critical, would require the crew to return on Flight Day 31...

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Accelerating the processing of Atlantis for early launch and rendezvous with Columbia was by far the most complex task in the rescue scenario. On Columbia's Flight Day Four, Atlantis was in the Orbiter Processing Facility at Kennedy Space Center with its main engines installed and only 41 days from its scheduled March 1 launch. The Solid Rocket Boosters were already mated with the External Tank in the Vehicle Assembly Building. By working three around-the-clock shifts seven days a week, Atlantis could be readied for launch, with no necessary testing skipped, by February 10. If launch processing and countdown proceeded smoothly, this would provide a five-day window, from February 10 to February 15, in which Atlantis could rendezvous with Columbia before Columbia's consumables ran out. According to records, the weather on these days allowed a launch. Atlantis would be launched with a crew of four: a commander, pilot, and two astronauts trained for spacewalks. In January, seven commanders, seven pilots, and nine spacewalk-trained astronauts were available. During the rendezvous on Atlantis's first day in orbit, the two Orbiters would maneuver to face each other with their payload bay doors open. Suited Columbia crew members would then be transferred to Atlantis via spacewalks. Atlantis would return with four crew members on the flight deck and seven in the mid-deck. Mission Control would then configure Columbia for a de-orbit burn that would ditch the Orbiter in the Pacific Ocean, or would have the Columbia crew take it to a higher orbit for a possible subsequent repair mission if more thorough repairs could be developed.

This rescue was considered challenging but feasible. To succeed, it required problem-free processing of Atlantis and a flawless launch countdown. If Program managers had understood the threat that the bipod foam strike posed and were able to unequivocally determine before Flight Day Seven that there was potentially catastrophic damage to the left wing, these repair and rescue plans would most likely have been developed, and a rescue would have been conceivable.

So there it is. Had the e-mail messages been heeded, and the shuttle been inspected -- first from the ground, then from space -- then the crew could likely have been saved.

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