Skip navigation

A rescue in space was truly a mission impossible

With a report from Tu Thanh Ha

The suggestions of a Hollywood-style rescue mission came almost as fast as the images of disaster.

So linked in spirit are the United States' space program and its movie industry that even the experts began asking whether a Tom-Hanks-type rescue mission could have prevented the tragedy. After all, a heroic effort saved Apollo 13, and added to the drama of a generation of films, from Marooned to Armageddon.

James Oberg, an author and former shuttle-flight controller, was shocked by the number of e-mails he received during the weekend asking the very question: If the shuttle was in danger from liftoff, why was a rescue mission not launched?

"They may be implausible, but not by much," he told an Associated Press reporter. "There's always the question of miracles."

Only a full investigation will determine how much the National Aeronautics and Space Administration knew about damage done to the Columbia's critical heat-shielding tiles during its launch. But U.S. space officials have said they knew very early in the Columbia mission that it had lost a piece of insulating foam during liftoff, and that the piece appeared to have struck the left wing and knocked away ceramic tiles needed for a safe re-entry.

The tiles are essential for protecting the shuttle's aluminum skin from the searing heat of the last stages of descent.

But even if NASA officials did believe the damaged Columbia would not stand a chance of surviving re-entry, their options would have been limited.

For one, the astronauts on board had no training in repairing the tiles lost on liftoff. Nor were they trained or equipped for the spacewalk that would have been needed to examine the damage.

Columbia had two spacesuits on board and two of the astronauts were trained for simple walks outside the vehicle for basic maintenance tasks. But the shuttle carried none of the jet-powered backpacks that space walkers need to manoeuvre themselves.

Although it was on its 28th mission and described as old, Columbia was built to fly at least 100 times into space. It had been refurbished three times since its first flight on April 12, 1981.

But the shuttle was not fitted with an arm to allow astronauts to carry out repair work by remote control. The reason was simple: The idea of carrying spare tiles aboard space shuttles was dropped in the 1970s when it was realized that it would be impossible to affix them in the harsh cold of space.

Such technical arguments are not enough to satisfy many space-watchers, who believe a rescue mission should have been launched.

But such heroic thoughts defy the practical realities of life in space. Columbia carried enough food, water and oxygen to stay in space only for a few extra days. Another shuttle-mission launch was not scheduled until March 1, and it is doubtful that the crew would have been ready to speed up its schedule.

Even if an emergency launch could have been pushed forward, no one had ever tried to transfer astronauts in space from one shuttle to another.

Another possibility -- making an emergency rendezvous with the orbiting International Space Station -- would have been seen as no less risky. Columbia did not have sufficient fuel to track the Space Station, although it passed it several times during its mission.

The station was not asked to photograph the damaged shuttle, in part because there was little that could have been done. Columbia lacked a docking ring to lock into the station, the only one of the four shuttles without one.

Such obstacles have seldom got in the way of NASA engineers, who pride themselves on overcoming the impossible. But another basic challenge remained: Could a descent have been aborted once it became clear something was going wrong?

The simple answer may be "no." Once the shuttle begins re-entry, there's no way back to space.

Recommend this article? 0 votes

Back to top