What to tell a doomed space shuttle crew?

Former NASA Flight Director, Wayne Hale, shared some unique insights and memories on the 10th anniversary of the national tragedy that was the loss of space shuttle Columbia. "'If it has been damaged, it's probably better not to know. I think the crew would rather not know. Don't you think it would be better for them to have a happy successful flight and die unexpectedly during entry than to stay on orbit, knowing that there was nothing to be done until the air ran out.'" (via The Weather Channel)


  1. This is very interesting. Kind of a like a NASA manager’s Kobayashi Maru. They needed a Kirk to not accept the agreed upon solution. I love when they say shit like “Failure is NOT an option.” because they really mean it and then they fail. 

    How much of this was physics (they couldn’t get a rocket together in time to fix the problem no matter how much they rushed) and how much is attitude.
    So for example figure out a way to save oxygen. (one astronaut goes out the door so others will have more oxygen) Marooned. or Something like a military Russian rocket sent up with Oxygen and and food. 

    And the whole thing about how you want to die? These people are brilliant, adventurers, the would want to know. You might want to have asked them this question before they flew.
    I’ll bet they would all say, “Tell me the condition of my craft so I can work my ass off to fix it or say my good buys.

    1. The important fact in this story is that NASA was not expecting the Columbia to break up. They did not think that the craft was doomed. They had convinced themselves that the unacceptable anomaly of foam debris striking the orbiter was not a problem. Hence, they would have considered the risk of death on reentry to be no higher than normal.

  2. “‘If it has been damaged, it’s probably better not to know. I think the crew would rather not know. Don’t you think it would be better for them to have a happy successful flight and die unexpectedly during entry than to stay on orbit, knowing that here was nothing to be done until the air ran out.’

    Thats nuts. I would want to know so that I could do my best to fix the problem. And yes some things are almost impossible to fix. NASA always had a vehicle with rescue capability so the scenario with a vehicle stuck in orbit is unlikely to be a death sentence. So you do like Apollo 13. You bust a gut. Call in the engineers and operations guys who know the systems inside out and maybe you go out fighting.

    1. NASA always had a vehicle with rescue capability

      That is false. Read Wayne Hale’s blog before you start making shit up.

      1. The linked blog article doesn’t seem to mention rescue capability specifically. Apollo 12 was the rescue flight for Apollo 11. This pattern was used throughout Apollo and the shuttle missions. The crew of a stranded shuttle would be rescued by moving the crew across a few at a time to the working vehicle.

        For sure there were failure modes (see Apollo 13) where there would be no time to send the rescue vehicle into space. But the number of lawn darts around the place is testament to the policy of keeping the last launcher as a backup for rescue purposes.

        1.  Link to evidence please. After Columbia came down, none of the experts raised the possiblity of sending up another shuttle as a rescue, they take a Long time to prep

          1. Read the whole series of posts, they are very interesting.

            If they had realized immediately (launched Thursday, they would have had to go into panic mode Friday, but they didn’t realize they had a real problem until at least Monday, if not later), it might have been possible to get the next shuttle ready in time to rescue them, but by the time they realized it was a problem, it was too late. There is no way to fix the leading edge of the shuttle wing, NASA had looked into it over the years.

          2. A shuttle was such a complex craft to launch – why not send up emergency supplies in a COTS rocket instead, and prep the next shuttle in parallel?

            I have to imagine if the shuttle were still flying and this happened today, SpaceX would be like, “hey, NASA, we got this.”

          3. “Possible emergency procedures

            The CAIB determined that a rescue mission, though risky, might have been possible provided NASA management had taken action soon enough.[48][49] They stated that had NASA management acted in time, two possible contingency procedures were available: a rescue mission by shuttle Atlantis, and an emergency spacewalk to attempt repairs to the left wing thermal protection.

            Normally a rescue mission is not possible, due to the time required to prepare a shuttle for launch, and the limited consumables (power, water, air) of an orbiting shuttle. However, Atlantis was well along in processing for a planned March 1 launch on STS-114, and Columbia carried an unusually large quantity of consumables due to an Extended Duration Orbiter package. The CAIB determined that this would have allowed Columbia to stay in orbit until flight day 30 (February 15). NASA investigators determined that Atlantis processing could have been expedited with no skipped safety checks for a February 10 launch. Hence if nothing went wrong there was a five-day overlap for a possible rescue. As mission control could deorbit an empty shuttle but could not control the orbiter’s reentry and landing, it would likely have sent Columbia into the Pacific Ocean;[48] NASA later developed the Remote Control Orbiter system to permit mission control to land a shuttle. Docking at the International Space Station for use as a safe haven while awaiting rescue (or to use the Soyuz to systematically ferry the crew to safety) would have been impossible due to the different orbital inclination of both vehicles.

            NASA investigators determined on-orbit repair by the shuttle astronauts was possible but risky, primarily due to the uncertain resiliency of the repair using available materials.[48][49] Columbia did not carry the Canadarm, or Remote Manipulator System, which would normally be used for camera inspection or transporting a spacewalking astronaut to the wing. Therefore an unusual emergency extra-vehicular activity (EVA) would have been required. While there was no astronaut EVA training for maneuvering to the wing, astronauts are always prepared for a similarly difficult emergency EVA to close the external tank umbilical doors located on the orbiter underside, which is necessary for reentry. Similar methods could have reached the shuttle left wing for inspection or repair.[48]

            For the repair, the CAIB determined the astronauts would have to use tools and small pieces of titanium, or other metal, scavenged from the crew cabin. These metals would help protect the wing structure and would be held in place during re-entry by a water-filled bag that had turned into ice in the cold of space. The ice and metal would help restore wing leading edge geometry, preventing a turbulent airflow over the wing and therefore keeping heating and burn-through levels low enough for the crew to survive re-entry and bail out before landing. Since the NASA team could not verify that the repairs would survive even a modified re-entry, the rescue option had a considerably higher chance of bringing Columbia’s crew back alive.[48]”

            That’s of Wikipedia.

          4.  Why do I feel like that they gave up on them? That is so sad, to not even tell them, so they could at least say goodbye to family and friends.

  3. You should maybe read the blog before quoting stuff.
    He did not, in fact say that, it was Jon Harpold was the Director of Mission Operations.
     Wayne’s direct quote:
    “I was hard pressed to disagree. That mindset was widespread. Astronauts agreed. So don’t blame an individual; looks for the organizational factors that lead to that kind of a mindset. Don’t let them in your organization.
    After the accident, when we were reconstituting the Mission Management Team, my words to them were “We are never ever going to say that there is nothing we can do.” That is hindsight.”
    Reading Wayne’s blog was quite a experience, and is well worth the time.

      1. The best thing to do to understand the why is to read the blog from start to finish.  Harpold was not the only sr NASA person to make a statement like that.

          1. Agree, and I believe most at NASA now, and then agreed, also. That certainly comes across in the blog. That said, there was no good answer for what happened. And also keep in mind the crew was not just pictures to these people. They knew them, and their families. They were their friends and co-workers.
            The whole thing sucked badly.
            What I thought really sucks above and beyond that, was like Challenger, there was plenty of warning. It did not have to happen.
            Not something I would like to live with.

          2. There was a TV Movie about the Challenger Disaster that focused on the guy who raised concerns about the o-rings. He goes to see his boss who responds to the effect that the space shuttle contains a million parts and that the failure of a single one will spell disaster for the craft, the o-rings are not a special case. Something will fail and the crew will die. Going in to space is a dangerous business and losses must be expected. 

            I don’t know if the programme makers were quoting an actual exchange, but it certainly range true.

  4. How can you not give the crew a choice? Perhaps some of them might want to make peace before they die or contact family members. What gives someone in mission control the right to hide this information from the crew? If the crew unanimously declared that they didn’t want to hear this type of bad news prior to launch, then the information could be hidden. Otherwise, tell them.

    1. Remember, NASA flight operations has always been run as a quasi-military organization. There’s a chain of command, and that chain includes comrades and friends from the astronaut corps. When you sign on as an astronaut, you hand your life over to that chain of command and hope they know what’s best. And that includes the possibility that you may not be told everything.

    2. I would want a chance to stuff space behind the hole in the wing with whatever likely crap that I could scavenge. Anything to keep the hot plasma from getting inside the wings structure.  It took 9 minutes for the hot gases to cause the vehicle to be lost.  They needed things to hold together for another 5-10 minutes.

        1. Oh we do get this “internet thing”. It’s full of jerks. Some of us still prefer kindness.

          1. You really need to get over it.  Actually, so does NASA.  The death rate among astronauts is far lower than for test pilots (of air-breathers).  We just came up with this stupid “nobody shall ever die” thing that drove costs ridiculously high.   (oblig. reference to actuarial math quoted by a character with a seriously split personality about whom you do not talk)

    1.  And if you want to go all the way and be cynically correct, It’s “by Grabthar’s Hammer, you will be avenged”. 

  5. Something similar came up during Mercury. I think it was the strap holding the rockets into place over the heat shield. The indicator on the ground said the strap hadn’t detached: was it a bad indicator? Or was the craft doomed to tumble? There was no EVA option then, so they didn’t tell the astronaut. The discussion at the time was, if there was something that could be done on board the aircraft, by all means give the operator every option. Otherwise, treat it as anomalous data.

    The problem with Columbia (and earlier with Challenger) was that the decision that it wasn’t a threat was made far upstream from those in a position to change the situation.

    A more interesting question for me is, if a crew member is doomed with enough time for last thoughts and wishes- does the american public get to know about it at the same time as the astronauts’ families?

      1. It was John Glenn on Mercury mission number 3. The USA’s first orbital manned space flight.   He had a rough ride, but made it to splash-down.

  6. Weren’t the Challenger astronauts alive and aware in their intact crew cabin as they plummeted for nine minutes towards the ocean? I would rather know, stay in orbit, and swallow a very pleasant suicide pill while listening to Ashes to Ashes on repeat.

    1. The Challenger crew had no pressure suits, and the cabin peaked at about 65000 feet, so it is unlikely that any of them were aware much after the first 60 sec or so. No one really knows of course.

      1. I thought the Rogers Commission noted that supplemental oxygen was activitated at one or more seat locations, and took that to mean that someone had been conscious to activate at.

        1. Sure that wasn’t something that would kick in automatically?  In case you were unconscious and couldn’t turn it on.

        2. That is correct. It does appear at least 3 of the 4 on the flight deck were awake long enough to activate the O2. However at 65000 feet without a pressure suit, even with the supplemental O2 they would be out very quickly. No one really knows if any of them were awake all the way down. I choose to believe they were not.

    2. At least some of them survived the breakup, reference the activated breathing packs, but in uncontrolled freefall in a non-pressurized cabin compartment which is itself not aerodynamically stable or balanced and with some combination of spin through roll, pitch, and yaw.  

      So the answer is: No. No one was conscious post break-up, no one rode it all the way down.  Remember that.

  7. Even suicide nets at Foxconn don’t ROB people of agency in death. Contrition, reconciliation, reflection, survival, suicide, resignation, comforting one’s survivors – if it’s not human policy to make opportunities for these choices in a lifetime, then what’s the point of hospice? Fuck, what’s the point of medicine?

    A literalist Christian – and there appear to be no small number of them – would weigh repentance ‘a la minute’ and earmark the crew for hell. That’s just one example.

    I know it was a shitty situation for everyone involved, and that chain of command often SAVES lives. I certainly could not have handled that decision myself with anything close to aplomb, and I mean no offense to Mr. Hale. Through no fault of his, death and dying carry a taboo. Maybe the greatest taboo.

    Let’s fix that.

    I love sci-fi and futurism, and I’m young, so I think I have a greater right to expect some of these medical Macguffins to come true in my lifetime. Following the money, I’d imagine something like the ‘cure for the refractory period.’

    But I need to remind myself that I have no reason to expect immortality. Sure, we’re on a steepening curve, but I suspect my grandfather thought immortality might have been in his cards too.

    Grandpa (who was married at the time) tried to bed a hospice nurse. And not in the Sati sense. Barring the discovery of a synthetic non-analogue to God’s Cum, I expect I’ll die on the same high as Cobain, Keats, Coleridge, Grandpa. But – as with Grandpa – it will be meticulously chaperoned. Medical.

    Picturing your own death – graphically – does something. I can’t say what, in particular. But as we cure diseases and increase longevity, it becomes easier and easier to postpone – or even subjectively cancel – that mystery date.

    For the record, I want to know if I’m dying. If I’m going to whitewash all this awkward awfulness with specious grace, I’ll need at least a fortnight. Lucidity’s probably going to be low with the opiates. Make that a fortnight and some amphetamines.

  8. This was a really astonishing series of blog posts looking back at the whole of the event, how NASA came to be an organisation that could fuck up like this AGAIN.

    I’m disappointed in bOINGbOING grabbing a shock quote not even by the author of the blog, to give this a misleading blurb.

  9. No; STS-107 was in a medium-inclination orbit (39 degrees) rather than the 51-degree inclination orbit the ISS is in. Undertaking a significant plane-change manoeuvre takes a huge amount of propellant, far beyond the capacity of the Shuttles OMS engines.

    This is one of the bitter ironies of the loss of Columbia. Given the focus by the early 2000s on constructing the ISS, STS-107 was only the second mission in 16 flights not to be headed there. For that matter, other than the next expected Hubble servicing mission, I’m not sure if there were any other non-ISS flights manifested. Had the wing damage occurred on almost any other mission, it would have been noted as soon as the Shuttle arrived at the ISS, and the crew would have stayed there until subsequent rescue. (it would still have been rather hairy, as the ISS wasn’t intended to support ten occupants for any length of time, but at least three of those could have returned by Soyuz straight away and the Progress automated resupply mission in early February could probably have been reloaded with essential consumables.

    1. “it would still have been rather hairy, as the ISS wasn’t intended to support ten occupants for any length of time”

      you can include the shuttle resources here too… not that it matters, unfortunately

  10. all y’all might recall this was played out in a West Wing episode .. they sent up the Military Space Shuttle to rescue the Civilian Space Shuttle

    1. Ah yes, back from its mission to stop the evil Hugo Drax.

      The military was a really big fan of the STS… Having to kill a bunch of their own booster and orbiter programs, redesign their satellites to fit into the Shuttle’s bay, figure out how to launch those same Shuttle-spec satellites when it became obvious that STS couldn’t meet the launch schedule or projected costs, giving ground to a civilian organization, etc. etc.

      I haven’t seen that WW episode.  Where did they launch this “military space shuttle” from?  The only DoD shuttle facility I know of was SLC-6 at Vandenberg, and it was never used for such a purpose.

      What’s that?  On TV you say?  Not real life?  Sorry, I was reminiscing about my space nerd days.

      1. Don’t forget, shuttle had to be redesigned to carry military satellites. Nobody at NASA needed such a freaking huge cargo bay, but the spy sats of the era were humongous.

        1. Absolutely true.  Everybody got a bit screwed by STS.  NASA wanted a nice little truck that would be cheap to operate.  

          Hey, how about we save money by launching spy sats on that government truck?  

          Great idea!  In fact, let’s mandate that the military must use the little truck.  They want to keep their wasteful, single-use boosters, but we’ll show them!

          Great idea!  Wait.  Your payloads are how big?  Oh.  Alright, well let’s just scale up our truck a bit.  It shouldn’t affect the economics or the engineering that much.

          Sounds good.  Glad we’re all using off-the-shelf tech from Apollo et al. and not having to redesign entire systems from scratch or do all sorts of materials research.  That sort of thing could make our scheduling and cost projections pure fiction.  Ha ha.

          Ya.  Funny thing about that…  

  11. I had always heard that the explosion was somehow related to the payload maintained by Ilan Ramon.  I remember watching the event live on TV, and in the following days there was a lot of talk about the radioactive nature of the debris field, the DoD and IDF participation in the mission, the incomplete re-entry video, and the like.  Of course anytime ‘defense’ is part of a scientific mission I am suspicious.  I remember that part of the payload was a device to measure the density of dust and allow imaging through dust storms and other particle conditions. There was also a rumor that an anti-missile defense device of some sort was being tested on the re-entry leg of the mission. Somehow this was in my mind connected with the soon to follow events in Iraq, and as a result, we would never know the truth of the Columbia events.  Before you pan me as a conspiracy nut, I want you to know that I have family and friends that are involved in NASA and related aerospace engineering, including a shuttle mission commander; I only comment as I have not heard much about the payload angle in the years since, it seems to have been flushed down the ol’ memory hole.

    1. Well it all sounds perfectly plausible and not at all like a conspiracy theory.

      Perhaps it was an NWO plan, carried out by the IDF, to deploy chemtrails over the USA and infect rational people with Morgellon’s Disease to stop the spread of free energy since HAARP rendered the Montauk Project’s mind control ineffective.

      Now, if you don’t mind, I’ve got to check my fluoridated vril levels before my black helicopter flight to Bilderberg.  Ta.

    2. That’s because it wasn’t the payload, it was the foam striking the TPS on the leading edge of the wing leading to hot gases penetrating the wing, and its failure. There was no evidence of explosion. End of story.

  12. Hell, I’d want to know so I could have someone on ground play Space Oddity whilst I step out the air lock and jump.

  13. @Aaron Gilliland
    You said yourself that the military was required to use STS for payload operations, why are my remarks cause for your sarcastic drivel? Are you so naive as to think you know everything that goes on with your tax dollars? I’ve got NASA mission planning binders full of stuff that never makes the news. You do realize that there is a press-friendly mission schedule, and an actual mission schedule, right? But when would you have learned that, when you’re so busy scheming up witty retorts to others comments?

    1. Alright, let’s take this in small bites.

      I did, indeed, say that the military was required to use the STS for payload delivery. You argue that this evidence of military use of the Shuttle strengthens the case for the “military test gone wrong” theory.  You appear to suggest that my mocking statements are in contradiction to my factual statements about the Shuttle’s early years.

      The thing is, I never said “Ha ha, the military has never used the Space Shuttle,” or anything similar.  So, no, those statements are not contradictory on that point.  

      You, however, cannot claim that the Shuttle’s DoD history gives any substance to your theory.  I could just as easily say “NASA sent some chimps into Space, and I heard that one of the chimps was injected with intelligence tonic and became really smart and could have cured cancer but the drug companies wanted to sell their cancer drugs so they got NASA to hush it up.  It’s true because they did send chimps into Space, and drug companies have done things that put profit ahead of helping sick people.”  

      Chimps in Space + case histories of unethical drug company behaviour does not necessarily mean that a drug company hushed up the cancer-curing space monkey genius.  

      Columbia was destroyed, yes. DoD satellites have been launched by the Space Shuttle, yes. An Israeli astronaut was aboard Columbia, yes.  Governments have secretly done horrible things, sometimes with the best intentions but horrible unintended consequences, yes.

      Is there any combination of those verifiable facts that makes “Israeli astronaut tests military thing during reentry and makes Shuttle explode, conspiracy to keep it quiet” more likely than, or even nearly as likely as, “Shuttle wing leading edge appears to impact small amount of foam, sensors record increased heat loads on same wing during reentry, material failure-by-impact reproducible in lab without invoking angels, documented evidence of improper risk assessment standards at NASA”???

      As far as “NASA mission planning binders full of stuff that never makes the news,” I’m sure that the overwhelming majority of stuff in those mission planning binders never makes the news.  If you find mention of genius space chimps taking smart potions, non-American-citizen astronauts doing risky military tests during reentry, or something of equivalent gravity, do let me know.  Until then, your appeal to authority carries as much weight as the man on the street corner telling me about his private chats with Jesus Christ.  I’m not saying he’s wrong.  I’m not saying you’re wrong.  I’m not saying that I dislike either of you or that I think you’re bad people.  I’m saying that you are both lacking credible evidence and that your dialogue reminds me of paranoid psychosis patients I have known, although I do not suggest that you yourself have such a condition.

      And I don’t think I covered your whole argument.  I’m going to bed.  

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