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  STS-107/Columbia: "Flight Day 2 Object"

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Author Topic:   STS-107/Columbia: "Flight Day 2 Object"
hlbjr
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Posts: 321
From: Delray Beach Florida USA
Registered: Mar 2006

posted 02-04-2013 06:25 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for hlbjr   Click Here to Email hlbjr     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I haven't read this account of a "notebook sized object" which floated away from Columbia on day 2 of it's ill-fated mission. I wonder what would have happened had the significance of this "object" been understood at the time.
According to a source that asked not to be named, "due to a procedural issue" the object was not recognized during Columbia's 16-day mission by the Air Force Space Command (AFSPC). That AFSPC procedure was later corrected.

The Flight Day 2 object, according to a source then working with the CAIB to help discern the cause of the Columbia calamity, was a fragment of the RCC panel on the orbiter's wing. A team of experts concluded that the departing piece had been lodged within the left wing by aerodynamic forces on Columbia's liftoff. It was set adrift after the orbiter reached space.

Headshot
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Posts: 182
From: Streamwood, IL USA
Registered: Feb 2012

posted 02-19-2013 07:53 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Headshot   Click Here to Email Headshot     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I hope this is where you are going with your question:

If NASA realized the significance of the Day 2 object they would have had the crew, and ground assets, attempt to confirm a breach in the RCC panel. Once this was established those on the ground would know that the crew was, in all probablity, doomed.

Columbia, of course, did not have enough propellant to effect a rendezvous with the ISS, so reentry was their only option.

Arrangement would be made for each family to privately say good-bye to their crew member.

NASA would attempt modify the descent trajectory to minimize physical stress and heating on the left wing with the goal of getting Columbia down to a safe altitude/speed for the crew to bail out. The crew would have been briefed on all this and would be ready to implement emergency bail out procedures.

From what we now know of the size, location and nature of the RCC breach, the most benign reentry trajectory possible would still not have been enough to save the crew.

NASA would have also posted many more assets along the revised trajectory path to monitor Columbia's reentry with the hope of providing the commander and the pilot with detailed updates to assist them during reentry. This information would also be used to provide more information, to those on the ground, of Columbia's reentry performance and eventual breakup.

My feeling is that it was better, from at least the crew's point of view, not to know. I just wonder if NASA would have informed the public, before reentry began, that Columbia was doomed.

p51
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From: Olympia, WA, USA
Registered: Sep 2011

posted 02-19-2013 10:45 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for p51   Click Here to Email p51     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
From what I've read of NASA reaction to the wing strike on liftoff, it seems a lot like the decision to have Apollo 12 go on to the moon after being hit by lightning ("we just lost the platform," said Pete Conrad at the time) as they'd be just as dead hitting the water with no parachutes the same day they went up as opposed to dying the same way after landing onto the Moon...

Fra Mauro
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From: Maspeth, NY
Registered: Jul 2002

posted 02-19-2013 01:06 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Fra Mauro   Click Here to Email Fra Mauro     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I wonder if some suspect that a few people at NASA knew all along that this was a disaster coming on and that there was nothing that could be done.

p51
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From: Olympia, WA, USA
Registered: Sep 2011

posted 02-19-2013 02:15 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for p51   Click Here to Email p51     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I suspect that strongly, from what I've read. I don't think that NASA truly understood the nature of the damages to the wing but I wouldn't be surprised at all to find out that they thought it was that bad and realized there was nothing to do other than let it play out and hope for the best.

Considering for example that they knew about the O ring issue long before STS-51L and decided it was an acceptable risk to have venting through the outer casing, this is why I suspect this in the case of STS-107 as there had been several severe foam strikes before this one.

Headshot
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Posts: 182
From: Streamwood, IL USA
Registered: Feb 2012

posted 02-19-2013 02:19 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Headshot   Click Here to Email Headshot     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I do not believe for an instant that anyone at NASA knew for certain that Columbia was doomed.

Obviously some were concerned enough by the ascent foam-impact to: (1) perform a crude "what would happen during reentry if there was a hole in the RCC" scenario and (2) request additional imagery of Columbia while she was in orbit. Of course that request was shot down by higher-ups.

Had the images been taken and shown that the RCC panel had been indeed breached, I do not see how that information could have been concealed from the CAIB or remain concealed. Remember that the people who would have been tasked with taking images of Columbia from the ground would not have been NASA employees and would not have been under NASA's control. Someone would have talked sooner or later to say that NASA had hard evidence ahead of time that Columbia was doomed.

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

posted 02-19-2013 02:25 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 p51:
...there had been several severe foam strikes before this one.
...which only added to the widely-held belief that the foam could not critically injure the orbiter.

It was (in part) the observation that impacts to the shuttle were more a problem for post-flight servicing schedules than for in-flight safety that led to managers issuing waivers to fly with foam separating from the external tank.

Headshot
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Posts: 182
From: Streamwood, IL USA
Registered: Feb 2012

posted 02-19-2013 04:32 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Headshot   Click Here to Email Headshot     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I seem to recall (during the CAIB hearings) it being stated that when the foam strikes were first noticed/discovered, basic engineering calculations indicated that during ascent a loose chunk of foam would not damage the orbiter. Based on this belief, no foam strike testing was requested. Like Robert indicated, since orbiters kept on surviving foam hits, these incidents were relegated to post flight inspection.

I am not certain but, before Columbia, I do not believe NASA was seriously interested in determining why the foam was breaking off the ET in the first place. If they were, it was pretty far down on their to-do list.

OV-105
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From: Ridgecrest, CA USA
Registered: Sep 2000

posted 02-19-2013 06:30 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for OV-105   Click Here to Email OV-105     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I think that after STS-27 and what happened to Atlantis's tiles it gave a sense that the tiles could take a lot of damage. STS-107 was the first (?) and only time the RCC was hit.

I remember when they first started talking about the foam strike and they did not think that it could have been what did it and they were holding up a chunk of foam and I was thinking there was no way it could take down the shuttle. With everything I had read in the past I thought the RCC was a lot stronger.

If NASA would have know there was a hole in the RCC early in the flight I think they could have got Atlantis up for a shot at a rescue. Columbia had the EDO kit and they could have pressed it to the limit. Like was told in the CAIB there was no room for any kind of delay in getting Atlantis to Columbia.

Headshot
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Posts: 182
From: Streamwood, IL USA
Registered: Feb 2012

posted 02-20-2013 09:27 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Headshot   Click Here to Email Headshot     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I doubt very much, OV-105, that another shuttle could have been launched in time to rescue the crew of Columbia. Let's look at the following scenario:

Let's assume that the Flight Day 2 object is noticed on Day 2 and the information is relayed to NASA.

On Day 3 NASA requests images of Columbia be taken from the ground. Depending on Columbia's orbital path and the location of the ground assets, this may take from 1 to 3 days. For the sake of argument, let's say the images are taken on Day 4 and relayed to NASA.

NASA spends Flight Day 5 reviewing the images. (This would not be easy to do because the size of the breach would be just at the resolution limit of the imaging assets and the contrast of a black hole against the RCC's grey background would make interpretation difficult). At the end of Day 5 NASA concludes there is a breach in the RCC panels.

NASA spends the night of Day 5 along with Days 6 investigating plans to deal with this impending catastrophe. They have two choices: (1) determine if Columbia can survive reentry by using a different reentry trajectory and (2) determine if a rescue mission can be implemented. They run many computer reentry simulations and examine the launch readiness of the three shuttles.

The two plans are presented and debated. NASA decides sometime on Day 7 to attempt a rescue mission.

Columbia's mission is scheduled to last almost 17 days, which is close to the longest shuttle flight of 17 days 15 hours. Even if Columbia's crew could stretch out the consummables for the themselves AND the orbiter's systems, at best they could only last about 25 days from launch.

So the question is, could NASA launch a rescue mission in just 18 days?

I think not because there is an orbiter, ET and two SRBs to prepare and mate. There are various launch trajectories and orbital rendezvous flight paths to develop, verify and simulate. There is a rescue crew to train. Rescue equipment must be prepared, verified and loaded on board the rescue orbiter; the shuttle must be brought out to the launch pad and there could be weather delays. The countdown for the shuttle takes several days, which of course could probably be reduced to two days. It might take the rescue shuttle at least a day of orbital maneuvering to even reach Columbia and there is still no certainty that the rescue shuttle could be launched on time due to weather issues.

This situation was not like Gemini 6A, which flew 11 days after Gemini 7 was launched. In that case NASA had a month to prepare, plan and train for the rendezvous mission of Gemini 6A. NASA also had the advantage of a flight ready booster, a flight ready spacecraft and an already trained crew.

Glint
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From: New Windsor, Maryland USA
Registered: Jan 2004

posted 02-20-2013 10:01 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Glint   Click Here to Email Glint     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
quote:
Originally posted by Headshot:
Remember that the people who would have been tasked with taking images of Columbia from the ground would not have been NASA employees and would not have been under NASA's control. Someone would have talked sooner or later to say that NASA had hard evidence ahead of time that Columbia was doomed.

What is the expected resolution from ground based imagery? Would it have been enough to resolve the extent of damage?

The article said the hole was estimated to be 16 inches. From the sample highly processed image from the AMOS site given in the article, the resolution doesn't seem that good.

Headshot
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Posts: 182
From: Streamwood, IL USA
Registered: Feb 2012

posted 02-20-2013 02:05 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Headshot   Click Here to Email Headshot     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Most estimates that I recall mention a breach of 10-8 inches. The dramatic test conducted by the CAIB produced a breach that engineers said was too large. They claimed that Columbia would have never lasted as long as it did with a hole that large in the RCC.

What the resolution capabilities of the facility(ies) that might have taken images is, I believe, still classified as are the military's adaptive optics capabilities. The largest optical telescope that might have been used (of which the public is aware) would have been similar to the 48-inch Starfire. Air quality and transparency during the image-acquiring run would have also affected the imagery.

Again, it is not just the resolution of the optics, but their contrast enhancement capability. Detecting black hole against a dark gray background would have required some serious image enhancing computer work that would have taken more time. I do not believe that the viewing geometry was available that would have permitted Columbia to turn in such a way as to allow sunlight to shine into the breach and reflect off the interior aluminum wing structure and back towards the telescope(s) on Earth.

In all probability ground imaging of the Columbia would not have produced a definitive answer. It might have heigtened suspicion that something might be drastically wrong. The debate over what the images might be showing would have been long and contentious.

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

posted 02-20-2013 04:14 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Jay Chladek   Click Here to Email Jay Chladek     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
We're playing "what if" games here and be careful with that is it can turn ones insides up in a knot. As a hypothetical exercise, it can be a good one, but nothing more.

Main thing to keep in mind about photo and film analysis is it takes time. I've seen the foam strike footage in realtime and it is LITERALLY a "blink and you miss it" situation as unless the footage is slowed down, the block can't be seen. Instead you only see the cloud of foam debris from after the strike. I don't remember the chain of events as to when the emails voicing concern began to circulate, but remember that the department responsible for the film analysis at KSC is NOT the same as the one that would have detected the object coming off the orbiter.

Objects have come off orbiters on a semi-regular basis, be it a part of a tile spacer from inside the rudder-speedbrake, or ice from the SSMEs (all have been documented before). It would have taken a BIGTIME leap of logic for somebody to connect one event with another to determine that an RCC panel had been damaged in absense of any other data to back up that assumption.

As for what could have been done, Columbia was outfitted for a 14-16 day science mission and that could have potentially have been doubled IF word got up to the crew early on enough to stop all work and conserve consumables (air, energy and food) to allow time for a rescue shuttle to get prepared. But every one day of normal operations burns two days of conservation. So if the discovery and announcement was made on flight day two, that leaves 28 more days. A flight day three discovery and announcement... 26 and so on and so on.

If NASA had decided to chance an emergency spacewalk to do a proposed temporary patch of taking the mid-deck ladder and turning it into a work platform and stuffing the breach in the RCC with material and packed in with a frozen bag of water to take up the space (one of the plans NASA came up with at the urging of the CAIB during the investigation), that would have burned more avaialble days of conservation. Double how many days that might have burned if plans were made for a contingency spacewalk to eyeball the damage first before coming up with the "fix".

Ultimately, we will ultimately never know how successful any of these plans might have been or if a rescue shuttle could have launched in time. I personally try not to think too much about the "what ifs" and prefer to focus on what to do in the future if a similar situation pops up. That is the only real way to learn anything productive from a painful lesson like that.

328KF
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posted 02-21-2013 07:24 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for 328KF   Click Here to Email 328KF     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
The CAIB report covered the rescue scenario possibilities in some detail and concluded that such an attempt had a reasonable chance of success, if it was decided to be the best option.

One of the most critical decisions to be made regarding this was how much risk NASA would be willing to take without a thorough analysis of what caused Columbia's breach. The management would have to be willing to chance having similar damage inflicted upon the rescue shuttle if they chose to launch.

My own belief is that the desire to bring the crew home would have had outweighed any of the concerns, and emotion would have had a lot of bearing in that decision. I also think that astronauts would have lined up at the launch pad willing to take the risk to go get their colleagues.

Jim Behling
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Posts: 537
From: Cape Canaveral, FL
Registered: Mar 2010

posted 02-21-2013 07:09 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Jim Behling   Click Here to Email Jim Behling     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
quote:
Originally posted by 328KF:
My own belief is that the desire to bring the crew home would have had outweighed any of the concerns, and emotion would have had a lot of bearing in that decision.
Not really. Crew safety would be second to losing another orbiter.

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

posted 02-22-2013 12:27 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Jay Chladek   Click Here to Email Jay Chladek     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
quote:
Originally posted by Jim Behling:
Not really. Crew safety would be second to losing another orbiter.

Perhaps to an engineer. But remember the movie "Marooned" where similar discussions were made when the prospect of a "rescue" were brought up? Gregory Peck's character weighed the risks and determined it wasn't worth it until he got a call from the President saying "make it so" even if there was a risk because not doing anything would be more damaging to NASA's public image.

I know, it is a fictional movie and again we are discussing a hypothetical situation. But in this day and age of leaked documents and internal emails potentially going to the press at the click of an "enter" key, I have to wonder if public opinion and/or political pressure would have entered into it if NASA knowing there was a problem had decided not to risk a second shuttle for a rescue mission.

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