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Shuttle Achille's Hell ?
February 3, 2003 11:04 AM   Subscribe

Shuttle "Achille's Hell" According to this article, Shuttle has one. Curiously it's in the area in which that piece of insulation hit during launch.Were the astronauts warned ? Did they do some space walk to see what was wrong ? I would stop my car to go out and see if I heard a loud "thump" coming from somewhere.
posted by elpapacito (38 comments total)

I heard on TV they could have done nothing to fix an external damage, so spacewalking was useless. But maybe a little spacewalking could have revealed some damage not evident from sensors. Maybe they could have lunched another Shuttle to recover the astronauts, or rerouting to Space Station, or something else..anything but letting them come back on earth with a damaged Shuttle. Does that make sense to you as it does to me ?
posted by elpapacito at 11:07 AM on February 3, 2003

Nothing really new here. It's far to early to do anything other than speculate. Obviously the "debris during launch" is going to be suspect from the get-go.

"Could it have contributed to the failure of the craft during re-entry?" YES!
posted by Witty at 11:07 AM on February 3, 2003

Apparently they can't space walk beyond the cargo bay, so space walk would have revealed nothing new
posted by Outlawyr at 11:10 AM on February 3, 2003

in off-hand discussions this weekend, i commented that a tethered spacewalk probably wouldn't allow an astronaut to even get a good look at a damaged wing, much less any repair. the distance seems too great. but i might've been underestimating current spacewalk tech.

anyone have any empirical data on that?
posted by grabbingsand at 11:10 AM on February 3, 2003

I recall reading that they didn't have a Canadarm on board, so they were unable to spacewalk to check the damage. It's quite possible that this mission was not equipped with the necessities to do spacewalking.

Also discussed here.
posted by some chick at 11:12 AM on February 3, 2003

From the STS-107 "Columbia" Loss FAQ via

* Why didn't they do a spacewalk to inspect the underside?

First off, NASA officials have seen insulation and ice break off and
impact tiles on the underside on previous flights. In fact, one of
the tasks assigned to the STS-107 crew was to take photographs of the
External Tank immediately after tank separation to see just what
broke off, where it broke loose, and how big it really was. Those
photos were taken, but sadly they will probably not be recoverable.

With this in mind, no danger was perceived at the time by either the
crew or NASA, and was explicitly stated as such shortly after Columbia
achieved orbit. Even if there had been some suspicions, there was
simply no way for the crew to perform any sort of check of the
underside of the shuttle. As no spacewalk was planned for this flight,
and with the SPACEHAB mounted in the cargo bay, an EVA was simply not
possible as there was no EVA airlock. Add to this that for these
missions, the CANADARM is usually removed for weight savings as it
won't be used. Regardless, the CANADARM simply cannot be manouvered
so the camera on the grappler end can see the underside. It simply
lacks the joint structure to allow for this.

Even if the CANADARM was available, and the arm could have been
manouvered to show the underside of the Shuttle, and tile damage
had in fact been found, there was little if anything the crew could
have done to rectify the situation. In fact, at the initial press
debriefing, the Shuttle program manager specifically stated that
the crew had no capabilities to to tile repairs. Even if they could
perform an EVA, because there is nothing around that area for the
astronauts to hold onto, they would have had an impossible task of
even getting under the Shuttle to get a good look. And even if they
could have gotten underneath and secured themselves. they did not
have the tools or materials onboard to allow them to perform any

(thanks to robotwisdom for the link)
posted by ursus_comiter at 11:13 AM on February 3, 2003

Thanks for the concrete info, ursus.
posted by some chick at 11:15 AM on February 3, 2003

But maybe a little spacewalking could have revealed some damage not evident from sensors. Maybe they could have lunched another Shuttle to recover the astronauts, or rerouting to Space Station, or something else..anything but letting them come back on earth with a damaged Shuttle.

There was no way to do a space walk to even asses the problem, they were not prepared to leave the cargo hold. They didn't even have the arm in the hold. Its not like they can just "pull over" and check out the problem! They were not equipped with a docking port for the station, nor fuel to get them over to it had they thought the problem with the foam hitting the wing was a big enough deal in the first place. They could have waited for a "rescue shuttle" if the NASA assessments had concluded that there was a grave enough risk to go forward with the most daring rescue mission EVER, that is if they had enough supplies. Basically it was like Apollo 13, it was stay in space and die slowly from starvation or oxygen deprivation or freezing to death, or they could try and come back in and if the problem was no big deal, like the experts thought, then hey, no big deal. Apparently if speculation is correct, this was more than no big deal, of course, we could find out in six months that there was a bad fuel tank or something completely unrelated to what we think now.
posted by Pollomacho at 11:18 AM on February 3, 2003

Shuttle "Achille's Hell."

For a moment, I thought we had renamed the shuttle something that doesn't even make sense.
posted by agregoli at 11:24 AM on February 3, 2003

elpapacito, Here's what some blowhard has to say about it. We all knew it would only take a day or two for the conspiracy theorists to start blaming this on the US government.
posted by Samsonov14 at 11:34 AM on February 3, 2003

According to this article, Shuttle has one [Achille's heel].

One? That has to be the biggest understatement in the history of space travel.
posted by 111 at 11:43 AM on February 3, 2003

Pictures of some kind of damage on Shuttle left wing

The left wing of the Columbia shuttle from a picture taken out of the shuttle's window. The picture was taken from the news program "Erev Hadash" from Israeli television.
posted by elpapacito at 11:57 AM on February 3, 2003

They didn't even have an airlock on board the shuttle this time, as far as I know. A spacewalk would have been impossible and, as has been mentioned before, there's no way they could have fixed a problem anyway.

Even if there was some way to determine there was indeed a problem, rushing another shuttle to the launch pad would have put even more astronauts at risk.

Of course the armchair astronauts are coming out of the woodwork saying "they should have done this or that..." but the bottom line is this is just looking like "one of those things" that just happened and there was very little that could have been done about it. I guess we'll see when/if they ever figure out what exactly went wrong.

The challanger was another story. A big contributer to the cause was of the way NASA did things and the pressure to launch that particular mission.
posted by bondcliff at 12:01 PM on February 3, 2003

As Pollomacho mentioned, even had there been a way to find the damage, the International Space Station wasn't an option because Columbia did not have the fuel to reach that high an orbit -- but one of the reasons why might have some relevance to this investigation: Columbia was not made of exactly the same materials as the other three shuttles, and it was therefore quite a bit heavier than they are. So the other shuttles were always the ones that got sent up to ISS.
posted by frallyth at 12:06 PM on February 3, 2003

One other thing to consider -- if the Columbia was not fitted with the EVA airlock, then even if a "rescue shuttle" could have been sent up, I don't think they could have left the Columbia in order to get to it.

Also, keep in mind that almost every tile on the shuttle is different from all the rest. The only way to be prepared to consider making an in-flight tile repair would be to carry a backup for virtually every tile on the shuttle, and there simply would be enough room or weight allowance to do so.
posted by thorswitch at 12:12 PM on February 3, 2003


A) Given that the shuttle was originally docked at the ISS, why would the astronauts take the certainly fatal risk of a re-entry burn without a visual inspection of the damage and attempted repairs? They had been docked at the ISS for several days.


B) ...Columbia did not have the fuel to reach that high an orbit...

Which is it?? Did the shuttle get there, or not? I didnt follow the mission closely enough - someone - maybe the blowhard - got his facts badly wrong. And it is quite a crucial matter, IMO.
posted by dash_slot- at 12:20 PM on February 3, 2003

then even if a "rescue shuttle" could have been sent up, I don't think they could have left the Columbia in order to get to it.

I remember when they shuttle was first being developed they had these little "rescue balls" that were just large enough for an astronaut to fit in should they need to do an emergency decompression of the crew cabin. i.e. if some sort of toxic chemicals got into the cabin, they could flush it out into space. Another idea was they could use these to transfer from one shuttle to another during a rescue. I'm not sure they even carry these anymore.

The Shuttle was designed to be just that... a shuttle to go from Earth to a space station. It wasn't originally intended to be an all purpose space vehicle. I guess the feeling was if one was disabled in orbit, or could not return to earth for some reason (damaged heat sheild) the astronauts could hang out at the space station until they could be rescued. It didn't exactly turn out that way though, due to budget cuts.
posted by bondcliff at 12:21 PM on February 3, 2003

dash_slot -- The Columbia didn't visit the ISS on this mission. I didn't read through said blowhard's 'analysis' ...but I did read enough to note that he claims it was at the ISS for several days.

The Columbia loss FAQ linked to above (and news sources that I checked) clearly states that, "Columbia was in an orbit where it doesn't meet up with the ISS. When you're going at 175000 mph, changing direction requires a LOT of fuel. Also, in this flight, the shuttle did not have the docking system to dock to the station. And they still do not have any way to repair the tiles in space. And remember, neither the crew nor NASA had any suspicions whatsoever that anything was wrong with Columbia that would have required any repairs, much less an inspection."
posted by SpecialK at 12:28 PM on February 3, 2003 answer my own question:
It was primarily a science-dedicated mission, with no docking to the International Space Station (ISS).

Blowhard loses.
posted by dash_slot- at 12:28 PM on February 3, 2003

My question is why didn't they tilt the shuttle on re-entry for the right wing to take the brunt of the heat if they had any suspicion that the tiles might be damaged on the left wing? (They said that this was on option.)
posted by JohnR at 1:06 PM on February 3, 2003

I think CNN has found the root cause: Shuttle Travelling at 18 Times The Speed of Light
posted by akmonday at 1:11 PM on February 3, 2003

posted by Pollomacho at 1:21 PM on February 3, 2003

JohnR: The shuttle requires a VERY specific entry re-angle and approach in order to not break up due to friction. Because of this, humans have zero control of the shuttle on initial re-entry. It is all managed by computer. The pilot deadsticks the "flying box" (it has no fuel for regular flight) into port once the dangers of re-rentry have passed.
posted by xyzzy at 1:24 PM on February 3, 2003

There is much speculation that even if they had been able to inspect the damage that nothing could have been done. I do not believe this for a second. NASA engineers have shown, especially with Apollo 13, that they can be very creative in fashioning a solution when their astronaut's lives are on the line.

Depending upon how long they could have stayed in orbit awaiting a rescue mission simple problems such as lack of an airlock could be overcome. Another shuttle could have brought an airlock or some substitute therefor, perhaps extra fuel to get to the space station for repairs (I am sure there is no current provision for in flight refueling but I bet creative engineers could have found some way to accomplish this). My guess, if they knew they had a sufficiently big problem to abort reentry, they could have rescued the astronauts.
posted by caddis at 1:43 PM on February 3, 2003

Akmonday, sure that wasn't a quote from George W Bush? (Sorry, too easy)

At any rate that's a pretty pathetic mistake for a supposedlt serious news agency to make. Still, what does one expect from the network that can't find Switzerland?
posted by rocketpup at 2:00 PM on February 3, 2003

"It was primarily a science-dedicated mission, with no docking to the International Space Station (ISS)."

Or so NASA would have us believe.
posted by shabrem at 2:30 PM on February 3, 2003

There is much speculation that even if they had been able to inspect the damage that nothing could have been done.

This isn't speculation. This is fact.

Caddis, I heard one NASA epmployee say they may have gotten another shuttle ready for launch within a week if "we broke every rule we have."

Rushing a shuttle to launch, even if they could have managed it, would have put more astronauts in danger. Assuming they could even get one up there within a week ( a very big IF) the work involved in rendevous, etc, would make a rescue an even riskier operation than attempting a reentry.

I'm sure if NASA knew that had Columbia attempted reentry it would have broken apart, they may have attempted some sort of Apollo 13 "plug the hole with peanut butter" type operation, but as far as they were concened there was nothing wrong in the first place.
posted by bondcliff at 2:33 PM on February 3, 2003

That's quite a change from CNN's earlier reports. At one point on Saturday they claimed that the shuttle was travelling at "Mock 18." Maybe it was mimicking light speed.
posted by stopgap at 2:52 PM on February 3, 2003

Pictures of some kind of damage on Shuttle left wing

cant find the picture.
posted by sgt.serenity at 2:56 PM on February 3, 2003

Given the number of internal complaints at NASA regarding the shuttle program, I'm surprised at the level of public confidence in the agency. Whatever you call them, facts or speculation, don't forget that what we're hearing from the space agency bigs right now is spin. These are the same officials who professed that they had taken every safety precaution to prevent the Challenger disaster.
posted by sixpack at 3:03 PM on February 3, 2003

Direct link to the shuttle damage picture
posted by elpapacito at 3:14 PM on February 3, 2003

Corrected link to the page from which the shuttle damage picture comes
posted by elpapacito at 3:16 PM on February 3, 2003

I've read today that they noticed heat differences from the left to right wings, including loss of tire air pressure 15 or so minutes before expected landing. Then, (I don't know why) - it began to roll counter-clockwise slightly.. with an attitude like that on re-entry at such high speeds, that might be enough to start having air friction against parts of the ship that weren't protected by different insulation systems like the underbelly. i've heard the layer beneath said tiles and covering are only rated to 700F.. surprisingly low considering what's on the other side.

This is all speculation, considering the thing drops through the air at a 40 degree angle, higher than any other winged aircraft i can think of.. people describing it as flying a brick probably aren't too far off from the truth.
posted by shadow45 at 3:20 PM on February 3, 2003


When/if they lost some tiles on the left side, it'd cause more drag. Kind of like a car pulling to the side a tire's going flat on. Haven't heard if the ship yawed any (which is side to side movement) but a drag on the underside of the left wing would cause the wing to drop, so it'd roll slightly counterclockwise.

posted by JB71 at 6:57 PM on February 3, 2003

I'm not sure what the thing is in elpapacito's post, but it doesn't look like a wing. What is the big black metal post thing? Why would it be jutting out of a wing?
posted by Nauip at 7:02 PM on February 3, 2003

That's not a wing. Consensus seems to be that it's the back of the payload bay (a picture of a similar area can be found here. The "cracks" are probably gaps between the insulation blankets inside the payload bay, and the big black metal thing is probably one of the winches that astronauts can use to manually close the payload bay doors if something breaks.
posted by jaek at 7:24 PM on February 3, 2003

That's definitely not a wing in that Ma'ariv picture. I don't believe you can even see the wing's leading edge from any of the crew compartment portholes, but it's been a while since I've been in the shuttle mockup.

Even if it was a wing surface, it's the wrong wing-- it's the shuttle's left wing that apparantly failed, and given the angle of the object in the picture it looks like the right wing.
posted by Cerebus at 8:57 PM on February 3, 2003

Agreed; I also doubt that the wing would be visible in such a way from any porthole. The main windows on the shuttle are the front-facing ones for the pilots, and two on the roof. Many photographs taken by astronauts look out the roof portholes. There really isn't a side porthole, or a side window, and certainly not one that near the leading edge of the wing -- that would put the porthole inside the cargo bay, which makes no physical sense. The wings are also not visible from the SPACEHAB inside the bay. Another key point is that from a very early point on orbit to very near the end, the payload bay doors are opened (otherwise the shuttle would overheat). The doors, when open, obscure most of the wings from the point of view of anywhere near the crew cabin, and would be identifiable in a picture such as the one supplied.

The more I look at this, the more I think it's just a very close view of the interior of the rooftop portholes in the crew cabin. The big black thing is some kind of bolt; the white thing is a small item tethered with a sticky to the wall for zero gravity. Up in the corner you can see a rounded corner, probably of the porthole itself, and something resembling a tented blanket -- perhaps a curtain used to block the light of the earth so that the astronauts can sleep in the back cabin. There is nothing at all like that on the leading edge of the wing, I guarantee you that.

Finally, I guarantee that damage this visible would have been impossible to keep secret, unless the crew conspired to keep it secret from NASA. There would have been serious trepidation about returning, and an Apollo 13 style troubleshoot.

It really is unfortunate, but it is also a fact that from the very beginning NASA has known there are a number of catastrophic problems which could occur during a mission from which no feasible recovery would be possible. This is similar to the fear that if the Lunar Module rocket failed, Armstrong and Aldrin could have been stranded on the moon's surface, permanently. Not only are there things you can't plan for, like a meteorite strike, but there are seemingly stupid things like being unable to close the payload bay doors or the landing gear deploying partway at any point in the mission before the completion of re-entry -- or the landing gear failing to fully deploy when it's needed, since the brick glider has no go-around capability. These would all, in NASA parlance, ensure a Very Bad Day such as we just had. NASA therefore tries to minimize the likelihood of such events happening in the first place.

Rescue scenarios are almost all implausible. They would endanger more astronauts, for starters. There would be huge dnagers in transferring a crew to another shuttle. There wouldn't be enough crash seats for re-entry. There wouldn't be a way to get something -- anything -- up there before air supplies were depleted. These are things that the astronauts have lived with for years. Repair scenarios are just as implausible.
posted by dhartung at 10:13 PM on February 3, 2003

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