A Rescue Plan for Columbia

Ars Technica today published a story about the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, creatively called CAI and, as the article says, rhyming with “Gabe”. Apparently, as part of the report, they asked NASA to come up with a rescue plan that could have been implemented and carried out and included it as an appendix to the report.

It was basically a best case scenario for getting Atlantis up to speed, to the launch pad, into space, and rescuing the seven members of the Columbia crew. And by “best case”, I really mean best case. It’s one of those things that, when you read the article, you think, “Holy Christ! That would’ve made an awesome movie!” because, well… you have to. I mean, just the following popped into my head:

Columbia is found to be damaged. A rescue mission has to be planned and executed in thirty days or less or the crew of seven will be poisoned by carbon dioxide. And shortly after that, they’ll run out of oxygen. A grizzled old Mission Control director, frustrated with a slow pace the Agency ever since the Challenger disaster recruits a team of four tough as nails space dogs to crew the rescue mission. One, the test pilot who flew Enterprise, can handle a shuttle like he’s landing a Cessna. His co-pilot was a hot shot naval pilot. The two EVA crew are a husband and wife team, former Navy Seals both, who can move in space better than most of us can walk on the ground.

Atlantis needs to be prepped, fueled, and moved to the launch pad in record time, all the while our crack team of astronauts must train until their fingers bleed, blast off into space, and execute a perfect rescue plan, all while the lives of eleven people, and maybe even the agency, itself hangs in the balance.

Jesus, that’s a good story.

Unfortunately, as the article goes to great pains to point out, it just wasn’t possible. There are really a hundred reasons why but a few that are really important. First, there was no guarantee that Atlantis wouldn’t suffer from a foam strike when it took off, stranding not just the Columbia crew but now four more. Second, in the compressed timeframe, the likelihood that the rescue in space could be pulled off without seriously endangering everyone was low. Third, who knew what technical problems Atlantis might suffer from that were unknowable?

But, really, the last was the killer. NASA and the shuttle program were just not institutionally set up to accomplish such a rescue.

Atlantis Workflow Timing

The chart above details the major steps NASA would have to go through to meet the thirty day timeline with the best record to date as the second column, the required timing in the third, and the over all difficulty of achieving it as the last. Not an easy thing.

But then there are things that I never even considered when it came to a shuttle mission. Such as the idea that the flight computers have to be reprogramed for every mission? Really?

But this is the bit that really got me:

This would have been the first time two space shuttles were simultaneously orbiting, and the challenges would have been considerable. Each shuttle would have its own flight control room operating in NASA’s Mission Control Center—and, with the ISS also requiring a flight control room, this would have tasked the control center to capacity (both from a perspective of technical and human resources).

I can see the need to train the astronauts going up to perform the rescue (though I’d hope that to some degree they’d have the basics down). I can see the technical challenges of readying a piece of equipment as complex as the space shuttle in as little time as would be necessary. But the idea that every aspect of each shuttle would require a team of people looking over the astronaut’s shoulders and that this could be a choke point for the whole mission strikes me as downright… un-American!

The problem I have with the current incarnation of NASA is pretty much a microcosm of the problem I have with the governance within the United States as a whole–that nothing is ever considered done right unless overseen by a small army of bureaucrats.

I fully realize that the space shuttles represented a substantial capital investment by the US government. Further, I realize that we place a premium on the lives of our astronauts. Well… a supposed premium, I guess I should say. Because, even if all of the above challenges had been overcome, the likelihood of this mission ever actually taking place was next to zero because of the danger to the other four that would’ve been sent up. The CAIB’s logic, I suppose, being that it was better to lose seven for sure to save four for sure than possibly risk eleven to save seven.

All of which means that this story wouldn’t have made a very good movie after all. Two hours of mid-level administrators debating the merits of whether to even launch a mission while lower level engineers fill out endless pages of checklists just isn’t the kind of thing that sells movie tickets. It’s not even a terribly compelling argument to keep the space agency around.

I guess I just wish NASA, American politicians, and the American people had listened to the quote the whole article opened with:

If we die, we want people to accept it. We are in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us, it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.

—Astronaut Gus Grissom, 1965