Share

If Space Shuttle is Doomed, Do You Tell Crew?

Seth Borenstein | Associated Press
Published: February 1, 2013

Associated Press

In this Feb. 1, 2003 file photo, debris from the space shuttle Columbia streaks across the sky over Tyler, Texas. (AP Photo/Scott Lieberman)

WASHINGTON -- A NASA top official wrestled with what he thought was a hypothetical question: What should you tell the astronauts of a doomed space shuttle Columbia?

When the NASA official raised the question in 2003 just days before the accident that claimed seven astronauts' lives, managers thought - wrongly - that Columbia's heat shield was fine. It wasn't. Columbia, NASA's oldest shuttle, broke apart over Texas 10 years ago Friday upon returning to Earth after a 16-day mission.

But the story of that question - retold a decade later - illustrates a key lesson from the tragedy, says Wayne Hale, a flight director who later ran the shuttle program for NASA.

(MORE: Asteroid to Pass Close to Earth)

That lesson: Never give up. No matter how hopeless.

And to illustrate the lesson, Hale in his blog tells for the first time the story of his late boss who seemingly suggested doing just that. The boss, mission operations chief Jon Harpold, asked the now-retired Hale a what-if question after a meeting that determined - wrongly - that Columbia was safe to land despite some damage after takeoff.

"You know there is nothing we can do about damage to the (thermal protection system)," Hale quotes Harpold a decade later. "If it has been damaged, it's probably better not to know. I think the crew would rather not know. Don't you think it would be better for them to have a happy successful flight and die unexpectedly during entry than to stay on orbit, knowing that there was nothing to be done until the air ran out."

When Harpold raised the question with Hale in 2003, managers had already concluded that Columbia's heat shield was fine. They told astronauts they weren't worried about damage from foam insulation coming off the massive shuttle fuel tank during launch, hitting a wing that allowed superheated gases in when the shuttle re-entered the atmosphere. No one was aware of the seriousness of the damage at the time.

This was a what-if type question that conveyed a fatalistic attitude about the heat shield system being unfixable, which was "a wrong-headed cultural norm that we had all bought into," Hale said in a Thursday telephone interview.

"There was never any debate about what to tell the crew," he said.

In fact, NASA officials were overconfident in the heat shield on Columbia. A day after launch, NASA saw video of the foam from the shuttle's fuel tank hit the shuttle wing, something that had happened before. NASA officials studied the damage and determined it wasn't a problem.

NASA managers even sent the crew a 15-second video clip of the foam strike and "made it very clear to them no, no concerns," according to the independent board that later investigated the accident. Eight times, NASA had the opportunity to get a closer look at the damage- using military satellites - and NASA mistakenly ignored those chances to see how bad the problem was, the accident board concluded.

And had NASA realized the severity of the problem, the space agency would not have just let the astronauts die without a fight or a word, despite Harpold's hypothetical question, Hale said.

"We would have pulled out all the stops. There would have been no stone left unturned. We would have had the entire nation working on it," Hale said. Ultimately, Hale said he thinks whatever NASA would have tried in 2003 with limited time and knowledge probably would have failed.

(MORE: NASA Launches New Communications Satellite)

And the astronauts would have been told about the problem and their fate had engineers really known what was happening, Hale said.

When NASA started flying shuttles again, Hale told the new team of mission managers: "We are never ever going to say that there is nothing we can do."

NASA developed an in-flight heat shield repair kit.

The space shuttles were retired in 2011. Harpold died in 2004.

Hale said he is now writing about the issue because he wanted future space officials not to make the mistakes he and his colleagues did. The loss of the Columbia astronauts - people he knew - still weighs on Hale.

"You never get over it. It's always present with you," Hale said. "These are people I knew well. Several of them, I worked closely with. I was responsible for their safety. It's never going to go away."


Featured Blogs

93L in Eastern Atlantic Growing More Organized

By Dr. Jeff Masters
July 28, 2014

An area of disturbed weather located near 10°N, 33°W at 8 am EDT Monday, about 500 miles southwest of the Cape Verde Islands, was designated Invest 93L by NHC early Monday morning. This disturbance is a more serious threat than Tropical Depression Two of last week, and has the potential to develop into a strong tropical storm before reaching the Lesser Antilles Islands on Friday or Saturday.

June 2014 Global Weather Extremes Summary

By Christopher C. Burt
July 26, 2014

June was globally the warmest such on record according to NOAA/NCDC. See Jeff Master’s blog about this posted last Thursday. The month featured heat waves in portions of Japan, China, Western Europe, Central Asia, and Mexico. Late season cold and even some snowfall were observed in Estonia, Russia, and Scandinavia mid-month. Deadly flooding occurred in Bulgaria, Paraguay, Afghanistan, India and Sri Lanka. An intense dust storm struck Tehran, Iran on June 2nd. Yet another intense hurricane (Cristina) formed in the Eastern Pacific.

Live Blog: Tracking Hurricane Arthur as it Approaches North Carolina Coast

By Shaun Tanner
July 3, 2014

This is a live blog set up to provide the latest coverage on Hurricane Arthur as it threatens the North Carolina Coast. Check back often to see what the latest is with Arthur. The most recent updates are at the top.

Tropical Terminology

By Stu Ostro
June 30, 2014

Here is some basic, fundamental terminology related to tropical cyclones. Rather than a comprehensive and/or technical glossary, this represents the essence of the meaning & importance of some key, frequently used terms.

2013-14 - An Interesting Winter From A to Z

By Tom Niziol
May 15, 2014

It was a very interesting winter across a good part of the nation from the Rockies through the Plains to the Northeast. Let's break down the most significant winter storms on a month by month basis.

What the 5th IPCC Assessment Doesn't Include

By Angela Fritz
September 27, 2013

Melting permafrost has the potential to release an additional 1.5 trillion tons of carbon into the atmosphere, and could increase our global average temperature by 1.5°F in addition to our day-to-day human emissions. However, this effect is not included in the IPCC report issued Friday morning, which means the estimates of how Earth's climate will change are likely on the conservative side.