What if NASA had rescued Columbia

In summary, an expert summarizer of content observed that the Columbia space shuttle report details how NASA could have saved them with a risky plan. If you're thinking about a Mars trip, your odds will be much worse than that.
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  • #2
On an airline flight about a decade ago, I spoke to a Sierra Nevada director who had been one of the flight controllers for the Columbia mission - though not on duty during its reentry. I remarked that in terms of energy, Columbia almost made it. As I recall, it was at about Mach 13 when it lost control of some of its port control surfaces and tumbled to its destruction. And I suggested that had they known their condition before reentry, they could have emptied their payload bay to reduce reentry stresses.

He responded that he had been surprised that much of the debris recovered from Columbia was in "new" condition - landing intact in without any heat damage (and in marshy terrain that saved it from impact damage). He also said that during the reentry, the damaged wing surface caused drag that yawed the craft towards that damaged wing. The crew responded with rudder to keep the ship from crabbing. Discussions he had had at NASA suggested that an opposite response would have kept the craft flying longer - and perhaps long enough. By crabbing into the damaged wing, the fuselage could have shaded the gap from a direct hit by the plasma stream.

Ultimately, plasma entering that break widened the break, rupture at least one land gear tire, and (most critically) destroyed the control mechanism and much of the control circuitry for the port wing control surfaces.
 
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  • #3
That's depressing.

Would you go up knowing that about 1 in 50 missions is lost?
 
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  • #4
Ivan Seeking said:
That's depressing.

Would you go up knowing that about 1 in 50 missions is lost?
Most NASA people folk that I have met are true believers, so for them the answer is yes.
 
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  • #6
Yeah, this is the nature of disasters if only we had known what was really going on we could have averted the tragedy.
 
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  • #7
Frabjous said:
Most NASA people folk that I have met are true believers, so for them the answer is yes.
I asked about you, not NASA people. :)
 
  • #8
jedishrfu said:
Yeah, this is the nature of disasters if only we had known what was really going on we could have averted the tragedy.
And sometimes some people DID know! Of course, the Challenger comes to mind.

And what was nearly a scientific disaster, the Hubble mirror problem. That too was known to some before it ever left the manufacturing site.
 
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  • #10
Ivan Seeking said:
That's depressing.

Would you go up knowing that about 1 in 50 missions is lost?
If you're thinking about a Mars trip, your odds will be much worse than that.
Do you want to fill your short life with extreme adventure? Or do you prefer filling your somewhat longer life with a more mundane story line?
 
  • #11
.Scott said:
If you're thinking about a Mars trip, your odds will be much worse than that.
Do you want to fill your short life with extreme adventure? Or do you prefer filling your somewhat longer life with a more mundane story line?
I was referencing the shuttle record. Yeah, the odds of surviving a Mars trip are not so good.
 
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  • #12
Ivan Seeking said:
That's depressing.

Would you go up knowing that about 1 in 50 missions is lost?

Yes, very depressing.
No, I probably wouldn't go up. And would I go on a Mars trip? No way! :biggrin:
 
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  • #13
Ivan Seeking said:
I remember that. It is one of my earliest memories.
It is featured in the film Apollo 13, first I knew of it. Horrible way to go.
 
  • #14
pinball1970 said:
Horrible way to go.
The last video transmitted from the craft - starting a few minute before reentry is here:
Columbia reentry prep starting at about 3:00 into the video.
At 8:30 into the video, looking out the windows, they start to see distinctive plasma "swirl patterns".
Shortly after that ground control can be heard over the radio that they are starting to see "some G's".
At 9:09 "a hundredth of a G".
At 9:20: Describing the violent reentry effects, "You definitely don't want to be outside now."
At 10:40: Capsule video ends and commentary begin.

There was continued conversation with ground control beyond this video.

Among the first worrisome signs were a tendency of the craft to yaw to the left and the over-heating of a water bottle stored in the capsule near the port wing.
The ultimate destruction of the craft happened when it lost access to some of its port-side control surfaces.
At that moment, the craft tumbled into a rapid spin while travelling horizontally - a kind of snap roll. At Mach 12 or 13, the structure started to break apart. The forces were sufficient to snap the restraints holding the astronauts in their seats. From personal experience, I can report that snap rolls are disorienting - visual cues change so rapidly as to be thoroughly useless. And, of course, that final Columbia roll was certainly more rapid and forceful than anything I have experienced.

Overall, the situation went from worrisome to unsurvivable in less than a minute, and from comfortable to unsurvivable in a matter of seconds.
 
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  • #15
.Scott said:
The last video transmitted from the craft - starting a few minute before reentry is here:
Columbia reentry prep starting at about 3:00 into the video.
At 8:30 into the video, looking out the windows, they start to see distinctive plasma "swirl patterns".
Shortly after that ground control can be heard over the radio that they are starting to see "some G's".
At 9:09 "a hundredth of a G".
At 9:20: Describing the violent reentry effects, "You definitely don't want to be outside now."
At 10:40: Capsule video ends and commentary begin.

There was continued conversation with ground control beyond this video.

Among the first worrisome signs were a tendency of the craft to yaw to the left and the over-heating of a water bottle stored in the capsule near the port wing.
The ultimate destruction of the craft happened when it lost access to some of its port-side control surfaces.
At that moment, the craft tumbled into a rapid spin while travelling horizontally - a kind of snap roll. At Mach 12 or 13, the structure started to break apart. The forces were sufficient to snap the restraints holding the astronauts in their seats. From personal experience, I can report that snap rolls are disorienting - visual cues change so rapidly as to be thoroughly useless. And, of course, that final Columbia roll was certainly more rapid and forceful than anything I have experienced.

Overall, the situation went from worrisome to unsurvivable in less than a minute, and from comfortable to unsurvivable in a matter of seconds.
I got really interested in Shuttle history after watching Webb take off and subsequent journey to L2
Obviously I was aware of the first launches and accidents but not in much detail.
The below presentation gives a real insight, technical and also very moving.
It includes clips from the link you sent and how they pulled the evidence together to work out what went wrong.



There are other videos from inside mission control showing the event in real time from initial re-entry to “lock the doors” from Leroy Cain.

Some of that footage is in the link above.
 
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  • #16
Based on the video posted above by @pinball1970 , the ultimate destruction was a bit different than I described. After control of the left wing control surfaces failed, the jets were able to keep the shuttle flying straight until they ran out of fuel. It was then the tumble began.

The "snap roll" movement still happened, it showed up in video taken from the ground and broadcasted in the news coverage in the months following. But the tearing apart of the craft wasn't just from snap roll acceleration - it was also what the video calls shock-shock intersections with the vehicle.
 

1. What caused the Columbia disaster?

The Columbia disaster was caused by a piece of foam that broke off from the external tank during launch and damaged the heat shield on the left wing of the shuttle. This damage allowed hot gases to enter the shuttle during re-entry, leading to the disintegration of the shuttle and the loss of all seven crew members.

2. Could NASA have prevented the disaster?

In hindsight, there were several factors that contributed to the Columbia disaster, including a lack of communication and safety protocols within NASA. However, it is impossible to say for certain if the disaster could have been prevented if different decisions had been made. NASA has since implemented stricter safety measures and procedures to prevent similar accidents from occurring in the future.

3. What would have happened if NASA had rescued Columbia?

If NASA had been able to rescue the Columbia shuttle, the seven crew members would have been safely returned to Earth. The shuttle itself would have likely been damaged beyond repair and would have required extensive repairs before it could be used for future missions.

4. How would the rescue have been carried out?

There were several potential rescue plans that NASA considered, including sending another shuttle to dock with Columbia and transfer the crew, or using a Soyuz spacecraft from the International Space Station. However, due to the limited resources and time available, it is uncertain which method would have been chosen and if it would have been successful.

5. What impact would a successful rescue have had on NASA's future missions?

If NASA had successfully rescued Columbia, it would have been a major achievement and a testament to the agency's determination and ingenuity. It would have also highlighted the need for stricter safety measures and protocols within NASA. However, it is difficult to say how it would have specifically impacted future missions, as it would have depended on the success of the rescue and any changes made as a result.

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