L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 210, February 10, 2003
STARS AND WARS
The Shuttle Rescue That Wasn't
Special to TLE
Tonight, 4 February 2004, ABC News carried two very interesting news stories. A former Challenger Commission member called NASA shuttle managers professionally irresponsible for failing to task ground telescopes to examine the underside of Columbia. Afterward, a series of interviews purported to establish that the Columbia could not have been brought into an orbit near the space station, and that there was no choice but to send seven astronauts to their fiery doom.
The first story is certainly correct. Not only were ground based telescopes never tasked to examine the damage to Columbia as they had been on previous missions, but space-based telescopes like the Hubble were not tasked for that duty either. The USA government owns and operates over a dozen such orbiting telescopes which are sometimes referred to as "Keyhole" spy satellites. These satellite telescopes are powerful enough to read a license plate from orbit, and are capable of imaging in visible light, infrared, and possibly other parts of the spectrum. "Lacrosse" radar satellites are also available to conduct detailed radar imaging. None of these systems were tasked to even look at Columbia.
With respect to the very energy-intensive orbital plane-change maneuver needed to bring Columbia into a close orbit with the International Space Station, it is true that the fuel reserved for the de-orbit burn and other fuel reserves, as well as much of the hydrazine for maneuvering jets might have been needed to make the two space systems co-orbit. The Space Station itself could have used fuel to adjust its orbit, and a shuttle launched on a rescue mission with a station docking collar could have brought up more fuel for changing the space station's orbit. (A Progress could also have resupplied the space station.) Moreover, the Columbia crew might have jettisoned significant mass before making orbital maneuvers, thereby reducing the energy required. However, none of these ideas were even brought into consideration.
Instead, the extremely complacent shuttle program managers were determined to do nothing. Doing something, after all, is risky and involves making an affirmative declaration. The new foam which popcorns off the External Tank might have come in for criticism, perhaps resulting in fewer jobs with Lockheed Martin when shuttle program managers retired, or other bad results from their point of view. The idea that foam, saturated with water ice, was too light to damage shuttle tiles had been proven false on a previous mission of the Columbia.
What would have been done had the Columbia been brought into a close orbit near the space station? The astronauts aboard were all in pressure suits. Without a docking collar, they would have had some difficulty arranging a tether, but with astronauts and a cosmonaut aboard the space station, with equipment that could have been launched by Progress freighter, something would have been worked out. At first, the five astronauts other than the mission commander (Husband) and his pilot (McCool) would have left the Columbia to refugee to the space station, entering through its emergency air lock system. (If necessary, de-pressurizing both vehicles and putting station astronauts into bubble-bags if they didn't have pressure suits.)
With a crew of two aboard the shuttle, consumables intended for seven on a sixteen day mission would have stretched further. Maneuvering the Columbia would still be possible. Its scientific experiments might have been salvaged by a crew launched on another shuttle mission.
Conceivably, Columbia might have been repaired for return to Earth. If not, it represents habitable volume, and could have been docked to the space station permanently. Or refueled and flown in close orbit for micro-gravity experiments and the like. Or sold to a private company such as MirCorp.
The results which were obtained on Saturday 1 February 2003 were not inevitable and they do not represent the best available thinking. Rather, they represent complacency, laziness, and an endemic lack of regard for human life.
The ingenuity which characterized the rescue and recovery of the Apollo 13 and its crew has gone out of the space program along with every vestige of management integrity. NASA today exists for the purpose of the continued existence of NASA. Its managers often seek to go out the revolving door to private sector jobs in the contractor community. Any notion that the 1988 amendment to the NASA charter to provide for the human settlement of the Solar System should be a guiding principle has long been forgotten by these time-clock punching misfits who dominate today's shuttle program.
NASA deserves to have its budget zeroed and its equipment and facilities sold off to the highest bidder. The private sector can do everything that NASA has ever done, faster, cheaper, more safely, while making a profit and contributing to the economic recovery. The NASA budget is a multi-billion dollar drain, money the tax payers should keep for their own purposes. All that NASA is contributing to the economy is sewage and death, each of which is in plentiful supply from other sources. NASA delenda est.