| A 9-year-old girl weeps during a visit to the astronauts’ memorial at the Kennedy Space Centre, Florida. (AFP)
Cape Canaveral (Florida), Feb. 3 (AP): If liftoff damage to Columbia’s thermal tiles caused the disaster, was the crew doomed from the start'
Or could Nasa have saved all or some of the seven astronauts by trying some Hollywood-style heroics — a potentially suicidal spacewalk, perhaps, or a rescue mission by another shuttle'
Some of the ideas that have been suggested would have been highly impractical, dangerous and perhaps futile.
The shuttle does not carry spare tiles, and Nasa insists there was nothing on board that the crew could have used to repair or replace missing or broken ones. In any case, Nasa believed at the time that the tile damage was nothing to worry about and thus nothing worth risking a life over.
Still, as James Oberg, a former shuttle flight controller and author who has been bombarded by Armageddon-type rescue ideas via e-mail, said yesterday: “They may be implausible, but not by much.” He added: “There’s always the question of miracles.”
Nasa knew from day two of Columbia’s 16-day research mission that a piece of the insulating foam on the external fuel tank peeled off just after liftoff and struck the left wing, possibly ripping off some of the tiles that keep the ship from burning up when it re-enters earth’s atmosphere.
An analysis of launch video and film clearly showed a clump of something streaking away from Columbia 80 seconds into the flight. Engineers spent days analysing the situation and concluded that there was no reason for concern.
The flight director-in-charge of Columbia’s January 16 launch and Saturday’s descent from orbit, Leroy Cain, assured reporters as much on Friday.
But hours after the disaster, shuttle programme manager Ron Dittemore acknowledged that Nasa might have been wrong and that wing damage on launch day might have contributed to or even caused Columbia to disintegrate on re-entry.
“It’s one of the areas we’re looking at first, early, to make sure that the investigative team is concentrating on that theory or that set of facts as we are starting to unfold,” Nasa administrator Sean O’Keefe said yesterday.
Dittemore himself said: “My thoughts are on what we missed, what I missed, to allow this to happen.” Some facts remain:
n Nasa did not attempt to examine Columbia’s left wing with high-powered telescopes on the ground, 290 km below, or with spy satellites. The last time Nasa tried that, to check Discovery’s drag-chute compartment during John Glenn’s shuttle flight in 1998, the pictures were of little use, Dittemore said. He said: “There was zero we could have done about it.”
n Similarly, Nasa did not ask the crew of International Space Station to use its cameras to examine the wing when the two ships passed within a few hundred miles of each other several times over the past two weeks.
n Nasa did not consider a spacewalk by the crew to inspect the left wing. The astronauts are not trained or equipped to repair tile damage anywhere on the shuttle, least of all on a relatively inaccessible area like the underside of a wing, Dittemore said.
Could Nasa have sent another shuttle to rescue Columbia’s five men and two women' In theory, yes. Normally it takes four months to prepare a shuttle for launch. But in a crisis, shuttle managers say they might be able to put together a launch in less than a week if all testing were thrown out the window and a shuttle were already on the pad.
Columbia had enough fuel and supplies to remain in orbit until Wednesday, and the astronauts could have scrimped to stay up another few days beyond that. With shuttle Atlantis ready to be moved to its pad, it theoretically could have been rushed into service, and Columbia’s astronauts could have climbed aboard in a series of spacewalks. If Atlantis flew with the minimum crew of two, it could have accommodated seven more astronauts.
Could Columbia’s astronauts have abandoned ship and climbed aboard the International Space Station'
Because Columbia was in an entirely different orbit than the space station, it did not have enough fuel to fly to the orbiting outpost. Even if the shuttle could have limped there, it could not have docked. Columbia was not equipped with a docking ring since it was never meant to go there. So the shuttle astronauts would have had to float over in spacesuits to get there.