- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 21, 2003

A NASA report to be given to accident investigators today concludes the space agency could have used another shuttle to stage a dramatic rescue attempt for the seven astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia, according to a published report.

The Space Shuttle Atlantis could have made an emergency mission and rendezvoused with Columbia, according to Florida Today, which reported yesterday that NASA studied a rescue option.

Atlantis was scheduled to launch March 1 for a mission to the International Space Station, one month after Columbia made its fatal re-entry. But Atlantis could have taken off sooner, the report concluded.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board asked NASA engineers to conduct the study. The chairman of the 13-member investigation board disclosed last week that an effort was under way to find out whether NASA could have done anything to save the astronauts.

Harold W. Gehman Jr. criticized NASA during a Senate hearing last week for not engaging in a similar search for options to salvage Columbia.

“It’s inconceivable that we would come up with an answer that we could do nothing,” Adm. Gehman told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. “Doing nothing obviously is the wrong answer.”

National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials have said repeatedly they had no reason to believe Columbia was damaged. Even if the agency knew the shuttle was damaged, officials have said there was no equipment on board to allow the crew to repair broken thermal protection tiles.

Since then, NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe has said forcefully that the agency would have done all it could to save the crew if it knew Columbia was damaged and at risk of being destroyed upon re-entry.

Investigators have concluded Columbia had a hole in its left wing when it began re-entering the atmosphere.

After he testified, Adm. Gehman told reporters Columbia could have remained in orbit at least two more days.

The new NASA report to be delivered to investigators today indicates the shuttle could have stayed in orbit up to 30 days longer, according to the newspaper, located near Cape Canaveral, where the shuttle was launched.

The rescue attempt would have relied on a series of spacewalks between Columbia and Atlantis to get the seven-member crew out of the damaged shuttle, the paper reported.

The dramatic rescue attempt could have worked, provided NASA launched Atlantis quickly enough, former NASA Deputy Administrator Dale Myers said.

“An idea like that isn’t totally out of the realm of possibility. A rendezvous would be possible,” said Mr. Myers, who was the associate administrator for manned spaceflight in 1970, when the Apollo 13 lunar module made a dramatic return to Earth after an oxygen tank exploded.

“NASA has so much technical talent, it’s incredible what they can do,” said Mr. Myers, who retired from the agency in 1989 and testified two weeks ago before a House subcommittee.

He predicted Atlantis could have reached Columbia in one to two days after launching.

The new report could further call into question the decisions NASA made during the 16-day Columbia mission.

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