I read in an (unknown) aircraft accident investigation book that NASA engineers wanted to use DOD earth observation satellites to check for damage on the Columbia Orbiter during STS-107. This did not occur due to what seemed like pure bureaucratic ineptitude by upper management.

This question also asserts that such a satellite was used to photograph STS-1

A comment by @Organic Marble on an answer to the above question also asserts such a plan was concocted for STS-107:

there were several attempts including at least one by Wayne Hale to image [Columbia] using DOD assets. But Space Shuttle Program management stopped them -Organic Marble

Had an attempt been made, would it have been possible to photograph the underside of the orbiter with high enough resolution to conclude re-entry was not possible?

Given that the Shuttle orbiters had limited orbital maneuvering capabilities, and STS-107 had not had such an encounter planned (unlike STS-1), it seems like it could have easily taken too long for the "stars to align" and have a close enough encounter to effectively image Columbia.

EDIT: Additional detail on the proposed attempt from Wayne Hale's "How We Nearly Lost Discovery"

Engineers made three separate requests for Department of Defense (DOD) imaging of the shuttle in orbit to determine damage more precisely. While the images were not guaranteed to show the damage, the capability existed for imaging of sufficient resolution to provide meaningful examination. NASA management did not accede to the requests, and in some cases intervened to stop the DOD from assisting.[12] The CAIB recommended subsequent shuttle flights be imaged while in orbit using ground-based or space-based DOD assets.[13] Details of the DOD's unfulfilled participation with Columbia remain secret; retired NASA official Wayne Hale stated in 2012 that "activity regarding other national assets and agencies remains classified and I cannot comment on that aspect of the Columbia tragedy".

  • $\begingroup$ Of interest, had someone thought of it, is that the crew could have, almost certainly, checked for damage themselves, without ever leaving the crew cabin... $\endgroup$ – Digger May 14 '20 at 14:39
  • $\begingroup$ @Digger How so? That does make me think about whether the mass difference could have been detected given how carefully everything was cataloged? $\endgroup$ – johnDanger May 14 '20 at 16:05
  • $\begingroup$ If you're wondering if we could have puzzled out the relatively small loss of mass on the leading edge of Columbia's port wing by performing an RCS firing and then evaluating the ship's dynamic response, I'm guessin' that the variability in the impulse delivered by said firings was too great to perform such a delicate analysis. $\endgroup$ – Digger May 15 '20 at 15:15
  • $\begingroup$ In response to your first question, during the early stages of the STS-107 accident investigation, I can remember an email from a crew member who had hopped into the cockpit of one of the orbiters down at the Cape and reported (heart breakingly) that it was possible to visibly inspect the wing leading edges by looking out one of the forward windows with the use of a mirror... $\endgroup$ – Digger May 15 '20 at 15:16

My comment referred to ground-based assets as well as satellites.

Note that capabilities of such assets are highly classified. Some references can be found in the CAIB Report Part 2 which is devoted to explaining the bureaucratic ineptitude. All emphasis mine.

Conte explained to Rocha that the Mission Operations Directorate at Johnson did have U.S. Air Force standard services for imaging the Shuttle during Solid Rocket Booster separation and External Tank separation. Conte explained that the Orbiter would probably have to fly over Hawaii to be imaged. The Board notes that this statement illustrates an unfamiliarity with National imaging assets. Hawaii is only one of many sites where relevant assets are based.


So concerned were Intercenter Photo Working Group personnel that on the day they discovered the debris strike, they tapped their Chair, Bob Page, to see through a request to image the left wing with Department of Defense assets in anticipation of analysts needing these images to better determine potential damage.


Shuttle managers, including Ham, also said they were looking for very small areas on the Or- biter and that past imagery resolution was not very good. The Board notes that no individuals in the STS-107 operational chain of command had the security clearance necessary to know about National imaging capabilities. Additionally, no evidence has been uncovered that anyone from NASA, United Space Alliance, or Boeing sought to determine the expected quality of images and the diffi culty and costs of obtaining Department of Defense assistance. Therefore, members of the Mission Management Team were making critical decisions about imagery capabilities based on little or no knowledge.


In this study, NASA was to assume that the extent of damage to the leading edge of the left wing was determined by national imaging assets or by a spacewalk.


A representative from the USSTRATCOM Plans Office initiated actions to identify ground-based and other imaging assets that could execute the request.

Finally, note that one of the CAIB recommendations (R6.3-2) was

Modify the Memorandum of Agreement with the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) to make the imaging of each Shuttle flight while on orbit a standard requirement.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for the detailed answer! $\endgroup$ – johnDanger May 13 '20 at 18:18
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    $\begingroup$ I know that they must've been referring to a different Ham, but I'm enjoying the mental image of a fiftysomething-year-old astrochimp being one of the shuttle-program managers... $\endgroup$ – Sean Aug 13 '20 at 0:03
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    $\begingroup$ @Sean It might have turned out better if it were. That's Linda Ham who was chair of the mission management team during STS-107. Married to astronaut Ken Ham at the time. $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Aug 13 '20 at 0:25

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