Space News
space history and artifacts articles

Messages
space history discussion forums

Sightings
worldwide astronaut appearances

Resources
selected space history documents

Websites
related space history websites

  collectSPACE: Messages
  Space Shuttles - Space Station
  Assessing STS-1 tile damage on orbit

Post New Topic  Post A Reply
profile | register | preferences | faq | search

next newest topic | next oldest topic
Author Topic:   Assessing STS-1 tile damage on orbit
Tykeanaut
Member

Posts: 1624
From: Worcestershire, England, UK.
Registered: Apr 2008

posted 04-18-2011 05:10 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Tykeanaut   Click Here to Email Tykeanaut     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Would I be correct in assuming that if there had been potentially serious damage to any heat-resistant tiles on this first mission no one would have known until it was too late?

ilbasso
Member

Posts: 1494
From: Greensboro, NC USA
Registered: Feb 2006

posted 04-18-2011 07:15 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for ilbasso   Click Here to Email ilbasso     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
There were some missing tiles on STS-1, on the front of the left OMS pod, whose absence was apparent as soon as the payload bay was opened. I remember that it generated a lot of speculation in the media as to whether the crew would get home safely.

Robert Pearlman
Editor

Posts: 27328
From: Houston, TX
Registered: Nov 1999

posted 04-18-2011 05:13 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Six months after STS-1, Aviation Week and Space Technology reported that Columbia had been photographed by a (classified) Keyhole reconnaissance satellite to check for damaged tiles.

Amateur satellite watcher Ted Molczan wrote about the possible encounter in the aftermath of the loss of Columbia in 2003.

STS-1 was also reportedly inspected by an Air Force ground based telescope at the missile tracking annex in Valkaria, Florida (just south of Melbourne).

The photos were accidently released to the press after the NRO had turned them over to NASA for analysis. Subsequently, they were aired on a Saturday morning news program, but were very quickly pulled.

kr4mula
Member

Posts: 599
From: Cinci, OH
Registered: Mar 2006

posted 04-19-2011 10:39 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for kr4mula   Click Here to Email kr4mula     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
quote:
Originally posted by Robert Pearlman:
Six months after STS-1, Aviation Week and Space Technology reported that Columbia had been photographed by a (classified) Keyhole reconnaissance satellite to check for damaged tiles.

I always wondered how they pulled that off from a practical standpoint, not the managerial. Those satellites were made to watch something on the ground, not something in space moving at Mach 25. Wouldn't that make for some tracking and focusing issues? Unless, of course, the satellite were actually made with that capability, just in case they needed to image something interesting in orbit? Spy satellites aren't in my area of expertise.

Jay Chladek
Member

Posts: 2211
From: Bellevue, NE, USA
Registered: Aug 2007

posted 04-20-2011 02:05 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Jay Chladek   Click Here to Email Jay Chladek     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
The orbits used by spysats require pinpoint targeting of areas of interest on the ground anyway and the need to track them to shoot photos or collect data. Granted photographing a target in a different orbit requires even more precision, but if the orbit and object's location is known at a certain time, then the target track can usually be predicted well enough to at least try and take photos due to the laws of physics. But considering the seemingly short turnaround time needed for such a project, the satellite likely would need to have that capability programmed into it in the first place.

Of course, that does beg the question whether or not the NRO and DoDs intelligence gathering assets in orbit already had that capability or not. Granted the programs are still classified so we will likely never ever know, but it wouldn't surprise me in the least if attempts had been made to do similar photo passes in orbit of other targets, such as say the Soviets' Almaz Salyut military stations, such as Salyuts 3 and 5 (and even some of the vehicles, both active and failed that were classified by the Soviets as part of the catch all "Kosmos" label). But even if Soviet targets hadn't been photographed, given the test flight nature of STS-1, I doubt the DoD would have not already put a plan into place to gather imagery of STS-1 Columbia in orbit just in case the need arose.

Blackarrow
Member

Posts: 2024
From: Belfast, United Kingdom
Registered: Feb 2002

posted 04-22-2011 06:47 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Blackarrow     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
In November, 2001, John Young was in Scotland and I asked him about this. It was a private meeting before a public event: John Young, myself, and a representative of the Royal Museum, Edinburgh. I asked him if it was true that spy satellites had been used during STS-1 to observe the underside of Columbia to check for missing heat-shield tiles. He replied: "I don't know, I honestly don't know." He then laughed and added: "And if I did know, I couldn't tell you."

Straight from the horse's mouth. You be the judge. Oh, and, by the way, he regularly made eye-contact with me during a very friendly and fascinating 20-minute meeting. John Young is a true American icon, and as a mere foreigner I feel privileged to have met him.

benguttery
Member

Posts: 542
From: Fort Worth, TX, USA
Registered: Feb 2005

posted 04-22-2011 07:44 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for benguttery   Click Here to Email benguttery     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I am impressed with the notion that we could aim a spy satellite towards space almost 30 years ago. It would seem a ground telescope could have done the job just fine.

kr4mula
Member

Posts: 599
From: Cinci, OH
Registered: Mar 2006

posted 04-25-2011 12:23 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for kr4mula   Click Here to Email kr4mula     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I've heard STS-1 flight directors/controllers specifically mention using "national assets" to image the shuttle damage in orbit, but I suppose they could have meant ground telescopes. Or its entirely possible that they had no idea what assets were used. Really, they would only need to see the photos or just be assured there was no critical damage.

ilbasso
Member

Posts: 1494
From: Greensboro, NC USA
Registered: Feb 2006

posted 04-25-2011 10:18 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for ilbasso   Click Here to Email ilbasso     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
We've seen a photo of one spacecraft in flight taken by another, in the spectacular shot of the Mars Phoenix lander descending by parachute as imaged by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Spacecraft and cameras intended for photographing ground targets can be slewed to an extent. For example, the Mars orbiters that were designed to photograph at the nadir can be turned to photograph Phobos or Deimos at certain times.

The trick is the timing, when you consider the great relative velocity of the two spacecraft. To avoid blurring the image in a high-velocity encounter, the Cassini Saturn orbiter uses a technique called "skeet shooting" - turning the spacecraft as images are being snapped in rapid succession. In August 2008, Cassini flew over Enceladus at a speed of about 40,000 mph and took remarkably sharp images using this technique. The project scientists said it was like "trying to capture a sharp, unsmeared picture of a roadside billboard about a mile away with a 2,000 mm telephoto lens held out the window of a car moving at 50 mph."

Jay Chladek
Member

Posts: 2211
From: Bellevue, NE, USA
Registered: Aug 2007

posted 04-27-2011 05:29 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Jay Chladek   Click Here to Email Jay Chladek     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
There are some problems with using telescopes on the ground and that involves lighting conditions and atmospheric distortion. Even if one tries to snap pictures of the ISS today (albeit with much smaller telescopes than what the DoD might have access to in 1981) one can really only see the target at night when it is illuminated by sunlight. Once the vehicle passes into shadow, it isn't visible in the normal light spectrum anymore. Infrared is a bit different, but who knows what can be made out from the TPS with that wavelength. Photography in the daytime is even trickier due to the lighting of the atmosphere.

As such, if a satellite were aimed properly, while there are some unique challenges to the task at hand, others are no longer a concern (such as the atmospheric problems). Indeed many things will likely never be known about DoD capabilities in the 1980s, but I think it could have been done.

Paul78zephyr
Member

Posts: 344
From: Hudson, MA
Registered: Jul 2005

posted 05-06-2011 01:33 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Paul78zephyr     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
If we could do all this in April 1981 then why didn't we do it in February 2003? (I'm angry.)

Robert Pearlman
Editor

Posts: 27328
From: Houston, TX
Registered: Nov 1999

posted 05-06-2011 01:41 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
NASA engineers discussed via e-mail having military assets image STS-107, but it was decided that the foam strike was not a concern and therefore such imaging was deemed unnecessary.

TaylorR137
New Member

Posts: 3
From: Austin, TX, USA
Registered: Mar 2012

posted 03-27-2012 06:44 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for TaylorR137     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I came across this thread (and forum) while looking into this story and thought I should register to post what I've just heard in a class I'm taking. The professor is Dr. Hans Mark, who was deputy administrator of NASA at the time, and who was previously the director of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

Upon noticing the missing tiles on the OMS in mission control (image), he used the secure telephone in mission control to call the NRO to request they photograph the shuttle with a satellite. It took approximately 12 hours to get the details worked out and return photographs, and in the meantime they tried to decide whether or not to tell the crew.

Jay Chladek
Member

Posts: 2211
From: Bellevue, NE, USA
Registered: Aug 2007

posted 03-27-2012 10:17 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Jay Chladek   Click Here to Email Jay Chladek     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Could he be more specific than that? I mean, was it a decision whether or not to tell the crew that they imaged their bird, or whether or not they detected anything? Obviously they did not find anything on Columbia's bottom as the chase planes that escorted STS-1 to a landing looked her over and found no problems as I recall.

As to what asset was used, I would have to guess a KH-11 was potentially used since supposedly the camera on that bird has a 3 inch resolution when focused on targets on the ground (assuming it had the same resolution as the KH-10 system intended for MOL as has been hinted at in the NOVA Astrospies program). The first KH-11s were launched in the late 1970s. That means if Columbia's underside could be tracked and photographed, it would likely have enough resolution to pick out a missing individual tile if the lighting conditions were right.

Cozmosis22
Member

Posts: 262
From: Texas * Earth
Registered: Apr 2011

posted 03-27-2012 11:25 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Cozmosis22     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
quote:
Originally posted by TaylorR137:
I've just heard in a class I'm taking. The professor is Dr. Hans Mark... and in the meantime they tried to decide whether or not to tell the crew.
Good to hear that Dr Mark is still teaching there at the University of Texas.

Was no need to worry the guys up there since the bird was fine. Rest assured they would have alerted the crew if any damage had been found.

TaylorR137
New Member

Posts: 3
From: Austin, TX, USA
Registered: Mar 2012

posted 03-29-2012 04:42 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for TaylorR137     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
They had decided that if the images revealed damage, they would tell the crew about the damage. Ultimately mission control did tell the crew, though it wasn't clear if this was during or after the flight. Columbia was fitted with ejection seats which could be used below 40,000 ft. Keep in mind the existence of the NRO wasn't even declassified until the 1990's.

I asked Dr. Mark (HM) about the specific asset today, and the conversation went something like this (paraphrasing):

Me: … was it a KH-11?

HM: I can't tell you that.

Me: I ask because I read an article explaining it would've been hard. There were only 3-4 opportunities, each with a ~10s window, and of course motion would've needed to be compensated for.

HM: It was hard, and the images weren't great, but they were good enough. We'd done wind tunnel tests at Ames and knew we could lose 1-3 tiles. What we were looking for was more severe damage.

spaceman1953
Member

Posts: 933
From: South Bend, IN United States of America
Registered: Apr 2002

posted 04-15-2012 10:50 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for spaceman1953   Click Here to Email spaceman1953     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
quote:
Originally posted by Paul78zephyr:
If we could do all this in April 1981 then why didn't we do it in February 2003? (I'm angry.)
Glad I am not the only one who has not gotten over this!

Henry Heatherbank
Member

Posts: 146
From: Adelaide, South Australia
Registered: Apr 2005

posted 04-16-2012 04:47 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Henry Heatherbank     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
My understanding was the capability more than existed in 2003, but the request was never made of the national assets because the launch damage had already been assessed as negligible. If I recall correctly, this was a Mission Directorate decision made by Linda Ham, on recommendation from a stack of others who had dismissed the risk. I might be wrong about that last bit, and am not intending any disrespect to Ham.

Jay Chladek
Member

Posts: 2211
From: Bellevue, NE, USA
Registered: Aug 2007

posted 04-16-2012 03:03 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Jay Chladek   Click Here to Email Jay Chladek     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Regardless of whether or not the decision was made by Ham to NOT do the imaging, my understanding is the capability to do the imagery was indeed there, it just wasn't followed through with. Basically, they talked themselves out of doing it.

Given that mission managers were assuming any damage sustained would have been to be to HRSI tiles and not the RCC, that begs the question as to whether or not they would have been looking in the right place if an NRO asset took such images. Columbia likely would need to be angled just so with the left wing visible to see an "anomaly" in the RCC. A full on bottom shot might not reveal anything. We will ultimately never know exactly what the damage to the panel (or panels) looked like, or how well the details could have been picked up by a recon satellite. We can only make educated guesses based on the size of the hole that was blasted in the RCC panels during the Southwest Institute impact test. But still, not trying is worse than trying and not seeing because at least somebody did try.

TaylorR137
New Member

Posts: 3
From: Austin, TX, USA
Registered: Mar 2012

posted 05-12-2012 10:06 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for TaylorR137     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
The request to use military assets for assessing Columbia's tile damage was made on multiple occasions by multiple engineers, but were denied for various reasons. Here's the lecture (PDF).

What really gets me is the attitude that "nothing could be done." A series of rescue and repair missions were feasible [see the lecture].

Sorry to be short, I need to get back to studying for the final in this class in T-minus 4 hours!

Robert Pearlman
Editor

Posts: 27328
From: Houston, TX
Registered: Nov 1999

posted 05-12-2012 12:40 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
quote:
Originally posted by TaylorR137:
A series of rescue and repair missions were feasible [see the lecture].
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but at the time of STS-107, there was no consideration of a rescue mission because not even those who were asking for imagery thought there was a pressing need for a rescue. They didn't have enough information (hence the desire for additional imagery).

The decision not to collect the imagery was wrong, but under the internal engineering culture of the time, made within reason. No one fully understood or believed that a chunk of foam could significantly damage the reinforced carbon-carbon leading edge surfaces, and they had past lost foam and tile strikes to serve as precedent.

Sending Atlantis after Columbia sounds like a good idea, but as they had no understanding of the foam loss, what would happen if Atlantis was damaged during ascent as well? And that's to say nothing of what an accelerated, three-shift processing flow might miss, introducing even more risks to one or both crews and/or orbiters.

You need to consider the options within the environment that they existed at the time, not what could have been done with information and understanding gained later.

Jay Chladek
Member

Posts: 2211
From: Bellevue, NE, USA
Registered: Aug 2007

posted 05-14-2012 01:54 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Jay Chladek   Click Here to Email Jay Chladek     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Plus there is also the question of what to do if a problem was found. All the ideas bandied about concerning possible rescue missions or on orbit "repairs" to the wing were studies put into place after Columbia was scattered all over the Texas countryside. Nobody had put thought into it at the time as they had talked themselves out of there being a problem.

Columbia was fitted with an EDO kit which contains more cryo for the fuel cells so it can fly a longer mission of about two weeks. But they had burned through a fair portion of the cryo by about flight day four or five when the emails started circulating among NASA engineers. Figure maybe if a decision had been made to collect photos, have the images taken on flight day six with results showing something by flight day seven. What then?

Say if the "hole" was very visible in the images, then NASA might command the crew to end all experiments and go into sleep mode on the shuttle (say cutting off one of the fuel cells to limit power and save the oxygen). But O2 in a tank won't stay there indefinitely as there is some boil off of supply over time.

If they are going to attempt an EVA to get some eyes on the damage, it is going to be a tricky thing as they have no RMS, no SAFER packs and no way to really climb down to the site. All they have are EMUs and the tools needed to winch payload bay doors shut from the original planned contingency EVAs. The proposal to use a mid-deck ladder might work, but still it is risky of course. Only other idea I can think of is to send one guy out on EVA (second guy remains in the airlock) and try to suspend his rates so he stays fixed in one position and let him go out of the payload bay as Columbia backs away slowly, then rolls so the wing is visible, then comes back to scoop him up once he looks at it. It would be a very risky EVA by any standard. Plus, EVAs consume O2 as the suit packs have to be charged and the effort involved with EVA consumes more O2 than just resting.

Say you have the proof now on flight day nine (figure at least one day to plan and prepare for this spacewalk), you've burned through over half your designated cryo supplies, or maybe a little under that if imagery revealed enough of a problem to suspend the Spacehab mission. The first EVA still would have consumed a bit though. Figure maybe fast preparations of Atlantis would have started three days earlier, but A LOT of work is still needed to get it to the pad.

So, factoring in the time left available to the crew of supplies versus time for Atlantis preparation, do you risk an all or nothing effort to get a second shuttle off with a higher potential of risk (in a mirror of the Martin Caidin novel and movie "Marooned") or do you put all your efforts into the proposed spacewalk idea of filling the RCC hole with stuff and a frozen water bag and try to get the crew home that way? Due to the consumables remaining, both can't necessarily be done. You have to do one or the other, not both.

So, is the decision not to take images a bad one? Yes it is. But don't go playing the "what if" hindsight game based on what was drawn up after the fact as it still won't change anything and one can go crazy obsessing over it.

Based on the things I've read, perhaps IF the video footage of Columbia's ascent had caught the damage clear as day and NRO asset imagery had been taken on flight day two, the consumables aboard Columbia could have lasted maybe up to a month if they were lucky. But normal operations being what they were, they went on business as usual for several days, meaning every one day of normal operations would have consumed two days of reduced activity. That would not have left much time for a rescue mission or a repair.

That doesn't mean they shouldn't have tried something if they had known, but there was no guarantee of a successful outcome at all. Columbia's crew (and maybe even Atlantis's crew) would possibly ended up just as dead.

The people who lived through that day know they failed to do and many live with the knowledge that perhaps something could have been done. They have to live with that for the rest of their lives. Everything else is just speculation and that is all it will remain unless somebody comes up with a time machine of some sort (which I doubt will happen). The best we can do is take what we know and apply it to the future as a learning experience.

All times are CT (US)

next newest topic | next oldest topic

Administrative Options: Close Topic | Archive/Move | Delete Topic
Post New Topic  Post A Reply
Hop to:

Contact Us | The Source for Space History & Artifacts

Copyright 1999-2012 collectSPACE.com All rights reserved.


Ultimate Bulletin Board 5.47a





advertisement