- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 24, 2003

NASA could have staged a dramatic rescue mission to save the Space Shuttle Columbia’s astronauts, but it would have been filled with enormous danger, according to a new analysis by the space agency.

“I would frame it as very, very risky but not impossible,” chief investigator Harold W. Gehman Jr., a retired Navy admiral, told reporters during a telephone conference yesterday.

Columbia’s crew died Feb. 1 when the shuttle disintegrated during re-entry. NASA has said repeatedly it didn’t know the shuttle was fatally damaged, so it didn’t consider rescue options. But on May 2, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board asked the space agency to outline steps that could have been taken if officials knew about the hole in Columbia’s left wing.

A scenario drafted by National Aeronautics and Space Administration flight director John Shannon and presented privately to the investigation board on Thursday indicates the agency could have launched the Space Shuttle Atlantis to attempt to retrieve Columbia’s crew.

The unprecedented rescue mission would have relied on a series of spacewalks. During a careful astronomical dance posing dangers to crew members on both shuttles, Columbia and Atlantis would have been separated by only 50 to 90 feet while hurtling through space at 17,500 miles per hour.

The astronauts would have escaped Columbia using a tether connecting the shuttles.

“At no time would astronauts be floating in space,” Adm. Gehman said.

Four spacewalks would have been needed to get Columbia’s seven astronauts to Atlantis, guided by a crew of four, and it would have taken up to 12 hours to complete the rescue.

“Clearly it would be delicate, but they’ve been rendezvousing and docking spacecraft since Gemini,” NASA’s second manned spaceflight program in 1965-66, said Roger Launius, chairman of the space history division of the Smithsonian Institution’s Air and Space Museum.

The final two astronauts to be ferried across the tether would have programmed Columbia so it could have been controlled from Johnson Space Center in Houston and guided into the ocean.

The rescue scenario is based on two significant assumptions.

It assumes NASA knew about the hole in Columbia’s left wing soon enough to initiate a rescue mission. In fact, NASA and accident investigators didn’t begin to suspect Columbia had a hole in its wing until about Feb. 7. That’s when satellite photos — actually taken Jan. 17 — were examined and showed a piece of debris floating away from the shuttle. NASA launched Columbia Jan. 16. Secondly, it assumes the space agency would have approved the rescue.

NASA would have had to prepare Atlantis for the mission quickly. The agency was getting the shuttle ready for a March 1 launch but likely could have speeded up preparations for a Feb. 11 liftoff, according to the rescue scenario.

Once in orbit, Atlantis could have reached Columbia within 24 hours.

Timing would have been crucial. Columbia could have stayed in orbit until Feb. 15 if the crew were able to preserve its air-purifying lithium hydroxide canisters.

NASA said the rescue scenario isn’t realistic because of the assumptions on which it is based.

“It’s sort of like war-gaming in the military,” spokesman Robert Mirelson said.

But if the space agency knew about the hole in Columbia and knew re-entry would be fatal, officials would have done all they could to save the crew, NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe said this week.

Despite the risk of a rescue mission, Adm. Gehman said NASA’s decision not to request emergency satellite photos of Columbia could be questioned further.

“Now those kinds of benign administrative decisions which were taken now look more ominous, because now it looks like maybe there was something you could do,” he said.

Mr. Shannon’s report also examined whether Columbia’s crew could have repaired the hole in the shuttle’s left wing while in orbit. Astronauts could have used stainless steel and heat-resistant material to “stuff in the hole” and hope for the best, Adm. Gehman said.

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