The daring rescue plan that could have saved the Space Shuttle Columbia

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Lee Hutchinson/NASA/NOAA

February 1, 2023: One of the most tragic events in the history of space exploration is the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia and its crew of seven on February 1, 2003 – a tragedy made worse because it should not have happened. But just as it is human nature to look to the future and wonder what could be, it is also our nature to look to the past and ask, “What if?” Today , on the 20th anniversary of the event, Ars is releasing our in-depth 2014 investigation into Columbia’s biggest “what if”: What if NASA realized the damage to the orbiter while the mission was still underway? Could anything have been done to save the crew?

When we die, we want people to accept it. We are in a risky business and we hope that if something happens to us, the program will not be delayed. Conquering space is worth the risk of life.

– Astronaut Gus Grissom, 1965

It’s important to note at the outset that Columbia broke up during a phase of flight that, given the orbiter’s current design, offered no viability for the crew.

– Report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board

On January 16, 2003 at 10:39 am Eastern Standard Time, Space Shuttle Columbia lifted off from Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Barely half a minute later, 81.7 seconds after takeoff, a piece of insulating foam detached from the orange outer tank and impacted at a relative speed of at least 400 miles per hour (640 km/h). Columbia continued to climb toward orbit.

The foam impact was not observed live. Only after the shuttle orbited Earth did NASA’s review of launch images reveal that the wing had been hit. Foam bursts during launch were not uncommon occurrences, and shuttle program managers chose not to take in-orbit images Columbia to visually assess any damage. Instead, NASA’s Debris Assessment Team modeled the foam impact mathematically, but could not draw any definitive conclusions about the condition of the shuttle’s wings. The mission continued.

In reality, the impact shattered at least one of the crucial reinforced carbon-carbon heat shield panels that lined the edge of the wing, leaving a large hole in the brittle ceramic material. Sixteen days later than Columbia reentered the atmosphere, superheated plasma leaked through the hole in the wing into the orbiter’s structure, and the shuttle began to disintegrate.

Air traffic controllers monitor at Mission Control in Houston ColumbiaAs he descended, he noticed erratic telemetry readings coming from the shuttle, and then all voice and data contact with the orbiter was lost. Air traffic controllers continued to hope they were only looking at instrument failure, even as evidence mounted that a catastrophic event had occurred. Finally, at 9:12 a.m. ET, LeRoy Cain, flight director for reentry, turned on his comm loop and shouted a rarely heard command: “Close the doors.”

It was an acknowledgment that the worst had happened; The mission was now in “Emergency” mode. The control room was locked down and each air traffic controller began carefully storing the data on his or her console.

Columbia was gone and all seven of her crew had been killed. NASA refers to this extremely rare and catastrophic event as LOCV – “Loss of Crew and Vehicle”.


Colombia is lost. There are no survivors.

– President George W. Bush in a national address, 2:04 p.m. EST, February 1, 2003

The world of human spaceflight paused – first to mourn, then to figure out what had happened. Congress placed that responsibility on the shared shoulders of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (referred to in typical NASA acronym-dependent style as “CAIB,” or simply “CAIB,” which rhymes with “Gabe”). In the months after Columbiathe CAIB extended its investigative fingers to NASA and its supporting contractors.

My own memories of the time immediately after the accident are filled with images of somber meetings and hectic work. I was a junior systems administrator at Boeing in Houston, and because we were supporting the shuttle program, we had to locate and send to NASA boxes and boxes of backup tapes that contained everything that had happened on every server in our data center during the mission for analysis.

In August 2003, the CAIB published its final report. Behind the direct cause of the foam attack, the report scathingly criticized NASA’s pre-launch and post-launch decision-making and painted a picture of an agency dominated by milestone-obsessed middle management. This focus on tight, group-specific work and reporting without a complementary focus on cross-departmental integration and communication contributed at least as much to the shuttle’s loss as the foam blow. These allegations carried a faint echo of familiarity – many of them had been made 17 years earlier by the Rogers Commission conducting investigations challenger Destruction.

Finally, ColumbiaHis loss not only ended lives but careers at all levels of NASA. A number of prominent Shuttle program managers were reassigned. that is probably ColumbiaThe destruction of . contributed greatly to the resignation of NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe. Many of those involved in the mission – including many who still work at NASA – still struggle with post-traumatic stress and survivor’s guilt to this day. All upcoming shuttle missions have been put on hold, and ColumbiaThe three surviving sister ships ofdiscovery, Atlantisand Make an effort– had house arrest.

NASA looked inward and we wondered if orbiters would ever fly again.

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