This recent question regarding the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster mentions the possibility that the crew could have bailed out if the orbiter could have successfully descended to 25,000 feet before it broke up.

Was this indeed something that was possible? I do seem to recall hearing that some of the seats were ejection seats early on in the Space Shuttle program, but that not all of them were and that they were subsequently removed from the design. Was there some other way for the crew to (survivably) bail out in place at the time of the Columbia disaster? Did the crew even have personal parachutes for such a situation and a survivable method of egress in flight?


1 Answer 1


They did, but its use case was pretty narrow.

The shuttle hatch was modified to be able to be explosively jettisoned, and a telescoping escape pole (pictured below) could be deployed that would help bailing crew members clear the wing on the way out. The vehicle, however, had to be in a stable glide and below 25,000 feet, which pretty severely limits the number of applicable situations. (Reference: Shuttle News Reference)

This system was installed after the loss of Challenger; it might not have helped in that case, but would have made engine failures on ascent over the mid-Atlantic more survivable.

Shuttle escape pole test

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The system was only tested in stable flight at ≤25 kft, but the parachutes would have been useful even if the orbiter lost control and/or broke up in flight, iff one or more crewmembers were able to get out the door (something which would probably be more difficult with the crew cabin tumbling uncontrollably) and avoid colliding with anything at high relative speeds. Had the Challenger crew been equipped with parachutes and full-body pressure suits, some of them might well have survived (the forces of the breakup itself were well within human tolerance, and the crew cabin did remain... $\endgroup$
    – Vikki
    Commented Apr 6, 2021 at 23:16
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ ...intact until water impact). $\endgroup$
    – Vikki
    Commented Apr 6, 2021 at 23:20
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @Vikki-formerlySean I changed the phrasing of my edit, but I'm skeptical that they could have egressed the tumbling cabin. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 7, 2021 at 0:07
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @RussellBorogove: Manually bailing out of an out-of-control vehicle often can be done (as huge numbers of WWII bomber crewmen can, or, at least, previously could, testify, as well as quite a few pilots of skydiving flights where something went very wrong), although it does depend quite strongly on the details of just how the crew cabin is tumbling/falling (and, for some tumble modes, you are quite right - escape would likely have been difficult to impossible). $\endgroup$
    – Vikki
    Commented Apr 7, 2021 at 0:16
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ @Tristan, nice photo! A shout-out to the courageous, mostly unheralded test-jumpers out at Edwards AFB. This testing was quite dangerous... $\endgroup$
    – Digger
    Commented Apr 7, 2021 at 15:29

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.