- The Washington Times - Monday, February 3, 2003

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. If liftoff damage to Columbia's thermal tiles caused the disaster, was the crew doomed from the start?
Or could the National Aeronautics and Space Administration have saved all or some of the seven astronauts by trying some Hollywood-style heroics a potentially suicidal spacewalk, perhaps, or a rescue mission by another shuttle?
Not likely, say those who know the technology.
The shuttle does not carry spare tiles, and NASA says there was nothing on board that the crew could have used to repair or replace missing or broken ones. In any case, the space agency believed at the time that the tile damage was nothing to worry about and thus nothing worth risking a life over.
Still, as James Oberg, a former shuttle flight controller and author who has been bombarded by "Armageddon"-type rescue ideas via e-mail, said yesterday: "They may be implausible but not by much. There's always the question of miracles."
NASA knew from the second day of Columbia's 16-day research mission that a piece of the insulating foam on the external fuel tank had peeled off just after liftoff and struck the left wing, possibly ripping off some of the tiles that keep the ship from burning up when it re-enters Earth's atmosphere.
A frame-by-frame analysis of launch video and film clearly showed a clump of something streaking away from Columbia 80 seconds into the flight.
Engineers spent days analyzing the situation and concluded that there was no reason for concern.
But hours after the disaster, shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore said NASA might have been wrong and that wing damage on launch day might have contributed to or even caused Columbia to disintegrate.
Some facts:
NASA did not attempt to examine Columbia's left wing with high-powered telescopes on the ground, 180 miles below, or with spy satellites. The last time NASA tried that, to check Discovery's drag-chute compartment during John Glenn's flight in 1998, the pictures were of little use, Mr. Dittemore said.
NASA did not ask the crew of the international space station to use its cameras to examine the wing when the two ships passed within a few hundred miles of each other several times.
NASA did not consider a spacewalk by the crew to inspect the left wing. The astronauts are not trained nor equipped to repair tile damage anywhere on the shuttle, Mr. Dittemore said.
Could NASA have sent another shuttle to rescue Columbia's five men and two women?
In theory, yes.
Normally, it takes four months to prepare a shuttle for launch. But in a crisis, shuttle managers say they might be able to put together a launch in less than a week if all testing were thrown out the window and a shuttle were on the pad.
Columbia had enough fuel and supplies to remain in orbit until Wednesday, and the astronauts could have scrimped to stay up a few days beyond that. With shuttle Atlantis ready to be moved to its pad, it theoretically could have been rushed into service, and Columbia's astronauts could have climbed aboard in a series of spacewalks. If Atlantis flew with the minimum crew of two, it could have accommodated seven more astronauts.
Could Columbia's astronauts have abandoned ship and climbed aboard the international space station?
Because Columbia was in a different orbit from the space station, it did not have enough fuel to fly to the space station. Even if the shuttle could have limped there, it could not have docked. Columbia was not equipped with a docking ring. So the shuttle astronauts would have had to float over in spacesuits to get there.
Could Columbia's astronauts have repaired their own ship?
That assumes, first of all, that the astronauts could have rigged up something, "Apollo 13"-style, to replace the missing tiles. But there was nothing on board, said Mr. Dittemore and others. In the early shuttle days, NASA considered a tile-patching kit that was essentially a caulking gun, but the gunk undermined the performance of the tiles and never flew.
Two of Columbia's astronauts, payload commander Michael P. Anderson and David M. Brown, were trained to do a spacewalk, and they had the suits to do it. But neither was trained to do anything more than a relatively simple emergency repair.
Moreover, a spacewalk to reach the underside of the wings could be deadly, because there is nothing to hold onto and the astronauts did not have jetpacks to propel themselves. The astronauts could have floated off and never gotten back to the shuttle.
Mr. Anderson theorized just last summer about how he would go about reaching a trapdoor on the belly of the shuttle that was stuck open. He would have had to rig a 60-foot tether to a weighted bag, lasso it over one of the wings, and then crawl along the line hand over hand to reach the jammed trapdoor.
The chances of all this working within the eight- to-nine-hour limit of a spacewalk are practically nonexistent. The spacewalkers probably would not have had enough oxygen to make it back inside.
In theory, NASA could have had the shuttle descend through the atmosphere at a much shallower angle of entry in hopes of relieving the heat on the ship. But that would have life-threatening dangers, too. That kind of a flight profile almost certainly would have had the shuttle coming in too fast to make a safe landing.
If it was determined that there was no way Columbia and crew could survive re-entry and another spacecraft could not reach them in time, they would have been stuck in orbit for a couple of months before being dragged down through the atmosphere in a fireball.

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