According to Wikipedia, the earliest time at which there was a known issue with Columbia's reentry was at 08:53:46, when "Various people on the ground saw signs of debris being shed". Approximately 7 minutes later, the orbiter was lost with all hands.

Hypothetically, if NASA had immediately been informed of the debris shedding and had immediately known it was due to left wing heat shield damage, what - if any - options would they have been able to provide to the STS-107 crew to prevent the tragic loss of life that ensued? In other words, would it have been possible to abort the reentry and return to orbit to wait for Atlantis, or somehow alter the reentry trajectory to minimise the impact to the damaged part of the heat shield, or ...?


1 Answer 1


Once the orbiter was committed to entry by executing the deorbit burn, nothing could have been done. The entry trajectory was tightly constrained for structural, thermal, and aerodynamic reasons. There was no way to abort an entry and return to orbit. This answer on Aviation Stack Exchange gives a good overview of the shuttle entry trajectory constraints.

The entry could be waved off at any time up to the deorbit burn; this was done many times for weather reasons.

The only exception would have been that if the damage had been somehow minor enough to keep the vehicle from breaking up or losing control, but major enough to prevent reaching a runway, the crew could have bailed out if stable gliding flight was possible. (This was not the case for the actual accident).

For what could have been done prior to entry, see my answer to this question: What would NASA have done if they knew Columbia was catastrophically damaged?

The document referenced in this answer discusses some entry trajectory modification that might have been considered had the damage been assessed before entry; the consensus is that none can be stated to have any certain appreciable benefit, and both were discussed only in the context of flying the entry with the on-orbit wing repair completed.

4.7 ADDITIONAL ENTRY OPTIONS – THE “CAIN REPORT ” NASA Flight Director Leroy Cain presented the report from the “Entry Options Tiger Team” to the Orbiter Vehicle Engineering Working Group (OVEWG) on April 22. This report was a very complete analysis of the results of jettisoning most of the payload bay cargo and coldsoaking the wing. Although this report looked at options within the certified entry design envelope, the options presented required some very difficult EVA tasks like cutting power and fluid cables, cutting through a tunnel, and large mass handling. This study does not assess the feasibility of these tasks, but it simply notes that whatever jettison tasks that could be accomplished in any remaining time during the two “repair” EVAs would be performed, as this would decrease the entry heating by a small amount. As there is a very large uncertainty band in the thermal analysis of a wing leading edge repair, it is sufficient to say that jettison of equipment would have occurred during any remaining EVA time, and this may have helped the overall total heat load.

4.8 UNCERTIFIED OPTIONS - INCREASED ANGLE OF ATTACK /LOW DRAG PROFILE The Entry Options Tiger Team was requested to look at certified options only. The only uncertified entry flight design options that could significantly reduce the wing leading edge temperature would be to change guidance to fly a lower drag profile during entry or to raise the angle of attack (alpha) to a reference of 45 degrees, vice the standard 40 degrees. However, it should be noted that while flying either one of these entry profiles would reduce heating on the leading edge, the heat load would increase on another part of the TPS structure. A simplified analysis that does not account for heating effects due to boundary layer tripping from a damaged area shows that a wing leading edge peak temperature could be decreased from a reference of 2,900 degrees F to 2,578 degrees F. This would be considered as an additional tool in attempting to maintain the spar structural integrity. It should be noted that changing the reference alpha would require a significant software patch to entry guidance

From the CAIB Report, "STS-107 Inflight Options Assessment" .

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for that - I was already aware of the options that could have been used had the damage been detected before the reentry - hence why my question was specifically about after the orbiter had committed to that phase. The answer on aviation.SE linked by @Michael Kjörling is probably closest what I was looking for; I did consider posting there but felt this site would be more appropriate. Oh, and I try to avoid reading the CAIB report because it's just so damn depressing to learn of the myriad of institutional failings at NASA - it's like they learned nothing after Challenger. $\endgroup$
    – Ian Kemp
    May 3, 2017 at 11:27
  • $\begingroup$ @IanKemp It's more like they learned the wrong lessons, not recognizing the large-scale cultural factors. From Wayne Hale's blog (he's a former Shuttle flight director and program manager): "For all those years I had learned the wrong lesson about the loss of Challenger. The sound-bite explanation kept me in ignorance. You know, that a rogue manager for venal motives suppressed the concerns of good engineers and true when they tried to stop the launch." $\endgroup$
    – DylanSp
    May 3, 2017 at 13:48
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Having been there and lived through it, I'd say @IanKemp's phrase "myriad of institutional failings" is pretty much spot on. $\endgroup$ May 3, 2017 at 13:55
  • $\begingroup$ Why couldn't the shuttle lower the angle of attack and ignite the OMS to return to orbit after the de-orbit burn but before entering the maximum heating phase? $\endgroup$
    – Giovanni
    Apr 15, 2021 at 7:07
  • $\begingroup$ @Giovanni already asked and answered here: space.stackexchange.com/q/43501/6944 $\endgroup$ Apr 15, 2021 at 11:30

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