When the Columbia Shuttle broke apart in 2003, it was known after the launch that a piece of foam had fallen and hit the Shuttle. NASA apparently chose not to investigate it as well as they could have. If they had known (or even suspected) the damage to Columbia would have resulted in catastrophe upon re-entry, what process would have taken place?

Could they have performed an impromptu spacewalk to assess and possibly repair the damage? Could another Shuttle have been launched to retrieve the crew? Could the ISS have been used in some way to help their situation? (I think these questions are more for my curiosity of what could have been done and they were just part of my thought process. They don't necessarily need to be part of the answer. I'm more interested in what NASA's process would have been).

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    $\begingroup$ If you haven't already, you absolutely must read Wayne Hale's blog, specifically the series of posts about Columbia, which starts with this one. $\endgroup$
    – AakashM
    Aug 9 '15 at 20:03
  • $\begingroup$ Just for context on the above comment, Wayne Hale was at the time the newly appointed Space Shuttle Program Director $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Aug 6 '19 at 3:08

The answers to all your questions are described at length in section 6.4 (page 173) "Possibility of Rescue or Repair" of the CAIB Report.

Appendix D-13 "STS-107 In-flight Options Assessment" is a very detailed description of the process that was utilized to come up with the self-repair and rescue options. Major elements of the process:

  • Assumptions were made about the type and extent of the damage (although ground testing and analysis after the fact identified an extremely likely candidate for the damage, this was never and can never be completely verified).
  • Analysis was done to determine how long Columbia would have been able to remain on orbit to await rescue or attempt self-repair.
  • The feasibility of accelerating the launch preparation of Atlantis was studied.
  • The required modifications to Atlantis's flight software loads were scoped.
  • The rescue EVA was planned.
  • Disposal of the abandoned Columbia was studied.
  • On-board materials were evaluated for their possible utility in a self-repair.
  • Analysis of possible entry trajectory changes to reduce the heat load (including payload jettison) was performed.

TL;DR: It might just have been possible to mount a rescue mission using a different shuttle being prepped for the next mission. However, the debate over whether this would have been wise, given that the foam shedding problem would not have been fixed, would have been intense.

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Self-repair options using EVA tools and techniques are also described in the report. Basically they consist of accessing the breach and filling it with materials which might help to slow the rate of damage increase. The chance of any of this working is mostly unknown.

enter image description here

The ISS would have played no role in any rescue and could have done nothing to help due to its different orbital inclination from that of the STS-107 mission.

  • $\begingroup$ Amazing answer, thank you. One thing from that CAIB report you posted really caught my attention in the part talking about a potential repair they could have attempted: "The crew would be prepared to bail out if the wing structure was predicted to fail on landing." How would that have worked? How could they have bailed out of the shuttle? $\endgroup$
    – duzzy
    Aug 8 '15 at 19:30
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    $\begingroup$ It only worked if the shuttle was in controlled gliding flight at low altitude, so what was it worth? Not much probably. Basically the side hatch was blown off and the crew jumped out using a projecting pole to help them clear the wing. spaceflight.nasa.gov/shuttle/reference/shutref/escape/… $\endgroup$ Aug 8 '15 at 19:32
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    $\begingroup$ At this point I seriously wonder how viable it would be to mount a Soyuz rescue mission.Or even a Progress with fuel to get the shuttle to ISS and supplies to buy them more time. $\endgroup$
    – SF.
    Nov 25 '15 at 9:38
  • $\begingroup$ There would have been no way to interface the two vehicles or transfer fuel, even assuming one was ready to launch. Also Soyuz only carries 3 people. $\endgroup$ Nov 25 '15 at 12:39
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    $\begingroup$ 1 degree of plane change takes about 122 m/s delta v. The Soyuz is capable of about 390 m/s delta v. No way it could work. This discussion is no longer productive. astronautix.com/craft/soyuztma.htm baen.com/rendezvous.asp $\endgroup$ Dec 3 '15 at 12:17

A few additions to Organic Marble's answer.

The plan detailed in the CAIB report shows how difficult it would have been to mount a rescue mission. Even though Atlantis was being prepared for the next mission, they would have had to cut mission preparation time in half. No time for tests and checks. Everyone working frantically under gigantic pressure with no room for mistakes.
Meanwhile Columbia's crew would need to extend the mission far beyond the designed on-orbit lifetime of the Shuttle, with air (actually carbon dioxide scrubber canisters) being the most critical limitation.

"Accelerate" is a prosaic word for the herculean effort that would have been needed. Activities that normally take place across weeks or months would have to happen in hours or days. Civil servants and contractors at KSC would have to begin 24/7 shift work, keeping the lights on and the process running every hour of every day, for a minimum of 21 days, to power Atlantis through checkout and make it ready to launch.

Three unceasing, brutal weeks of 24/7 shift work—and that's with absolutely no margin factored in for errors or failures. The Orbital Processing Facility team, the Vehicle Assembly Building team, and the Launch Complex 39 pad team would have had to get every one of the millions of steps right, and every component of Atlantis would have had to function perfectly the very first time, or it would all be wasted.

From the CAIB:

It should be noted that although each of the individual elements could be completed in a best-case scenario to allow a rescue mission to be attempted, the total risk of shortening training and preparation time is higher than the individual elements.

A spacewalk to assess Columbia's damage would have been difficult. Columbia didn't have SAFER jet packs on board, so its crew would have had to free-climb across the outside of the shuttle (a precarious affair without handholds) to get to the wing.

From the Ars Technica article:

The error-free rescue of Columbia would have depended not just on the flawless execution of teams at all of the NASA centers but also on an unknown number of events that happened days, weeks, months, or even years in the past leading up to the mission.

  • $\begingroup$ Agreed! Even the ladder shown in the EVA picture is something the crew would have had to cobble together. And it took 2 years to improve the foam shedding situation ... $\endgroup$ Aug 9 '15 at 12:21

In answer to one of the OP's questions ("If they had known (or even suspected) the damage to Columbia would have resulted in catastrophe upon re-entry, what process would have taken place?"), if NASA had had insight into the extensive damage Columbia had been dealt during ascent, they would have certainly considered a different reentry plan - most logically to Edwards AFB. The most vulnerable section of the flight path, in terms of producing debris, would then have been at least a few hundred miles west of the California coast, over the Pacific Ocean.

If nothing else, it would have been viewed as highly irresponsible to route the reentry over populated areas, as it ended up being...and a one-orbit wave-off (which was discussed, due to weather concerns at the Cape - I was there) would have put the reentry trajectory over the heavily populated Houston metro area.

  • $\begingroup$ I guess you mean land at Edwards. It would be good to specify that, and add a link. $\endgroup$
    – kim holder
    Nov 24 '15 at 19:45
  • $\begingroup$ Hi kim. Fair enough. However, I've got no links due to the fact that I never heard any discussion at NASA about debris concerns - the general consensus at the time seemed to be that, if Columbia had extensive damage to the heat shield, there was nothing we could do. I beg differ... $\endgroup$
    – Digger
    Nov 25 '15 at 3:43
  • $\begingroup$ Ah, well I mostly meant a link about Edwards. It's a detail in this context, mostly I saw that you are new and was getting in the general point that references are always preferable. Welcome to Space Exploration SE. $\endgroup$
    – kim holder
    Nov 25 '15 at 4:03
  • $\begingroup$ kim, good point. Link added! $\endgroup$
    – Digger
    Nov 25 '15 at 4:44

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