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Bea on Columbia


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We start by affirming that the development of the space program has been one of the great engineering feats of human history. It is also true that, when stated in relative terms, the safety record has been extraordinary. It is also possible these successes have given us too much pride and shifted our focus away from what should be our first priority, i.e. the safety of our crews.

My immediate concern is for Eileen Collins and her crew, scheduled to fly the next shuttle mission. Courageous and motivated, these marvelous volunteers have trained for years to meet the exacting criteria established by NASA and, just as their predecessors on Columbia, will meet the highest standards regardless of the equipment furnished them. They are being put in the position of validating NASA's program by their willingness to fly so soon after the Columbia disaster. We owe them more backup capability than was afforded Columbia's crew. We certainly need to avoid the colossal blunder in NASA's planning for the Columbia mission.

Let's start with two assumptions. First, that our astronauts are in danger while in space, whether crewing the space station or a shuttle mission. We do not need to look past the life threatening fire Jerry Linenger fought while on the Soviet MIR or the disastrous damage to Columbia's left wing to support this assumption. The potential for emergency will always be there.

Second, that the space station and each shuttle in orbit are the only backups normally available in the event of emergency. Just as the crew of the shuttle would be the only hope for a member of the space station crew stricken with sudden illness or accidental injury, so too, would the space station become the only hope for saving a shuttle in danger.

Given these assumptions, NASA's colossal blunder was its failure to launch Columbia in an orbit which allowed docking at the space station. There appears to be nothing in the reported list of experiments for Columbia's flight that required locating Columbia's orbit away from our Space Station. Scheduling the launch within a window of time that would have allowed docking of Columbia at the Space Station in the event of an emergency seems to have been a safety factor ignored by NASA. After the launch NASA conducted a strenuous review of the potential harm to the shuttle from the material dislodged during the initial burn and came to the conclusion the probable damage was not life threatening. NASA's conclusion was entirely speculative because the shuttle could not be brought close to the Space Station for visual inspection of the damage. Docking of the shuttle at the Space Station would have allowed close inspection of the damaged wing. The breach in the leading edge material of the left wing could have been discovered and the discussion then focused on the safety of re-entry.

If no other reason is given for such backup capability, let us consider the aging fleet of shuttles, now more than 25 years old. After millions of miles in the extremely hostile temperatures of space and multiple re-entries and launches where the earth's atmosphere has battered and blasted them, our vehicles are near the end of their useful lives. Granted, we rebuild them every three years but no-one should be surprised at equipment and system failures after this many years of such rugged use. The Space Station, as a safety valve for the shuttle Columbia, offered potentially life saving solutions. Assuming the shuttle could not be repaired, the crew could have survived in the Space Station until brought down by Soyuz space capsule flights or subsequent shuttle flights. If determined to be unflyable, the shuttle could have been attached to the station and used as building materials or spare parts, et al., but the crew would have had an opportunity to live.

Given the apparent breach of the left wing during launch, the failure of NASA to launch Columbia in an orbit allowing docking with the Space Station was as much a cause of her crews' death as any failure of equipment or damage to the shuttle's wing.

-- Bernice T. Steadman (Copyright © Bernice T. Steadman)

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