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Officials pore over painful 'ifs'

By Anne Barnard, Globe Staff, 2/3/2003

As NASA investigators try to understand why the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated 16 minutes from its scheduled landing Saturday morning, space officials and Americans are facing two wrenching questions.

Was there any way to tell that the shuttle was at risk of breaking up as it reentered the earth's atmosphere? And, had NASA officials known, could they have done anything to save the lives of the seven people aboard?

The questions carry echoes of the Apollo 13 lunar mission in 1970, when three astronauts in a damaged craft crossed their fingers and headed down into the earth's atmosphere, knowing they could burn up.

NASA officials said yesterday that just minutes before the shuttle disintegrated, Columbia registered signs of overheating on its left side -- information that came much too late for the crew to have addressed any problem.

But attention also has focused on the shuttle's launch 16 days earlier, when a chunk of insulation fell from a fuel tank and hit the shuttle's left side 80 seconds after liftoff. NASA officials never examined the shuttle in flight for damage, saying they did not believe it was significant -- and that in any case, there was no way to fix it in flight.

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Some specialists, including former space program officials, said the agency may in hindsight decide that was a mistake.

''The guys on the ground are awful smart, and when they're under the gun they might think of something,'' said Gerry Griffin, who was a flight director at Mission Control during the abortive Apollo 13 moon mission. ''It might have a small chance of working, but it might be worth a try.

''That may be something that might come out of this,'' he said. ''If you suspect a problem, you probably ought to call all the assets you have . . . to take a look and see what you've got.''

NASA shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore defended the agency's decisions in a briefing yesterday, saying that after analyzing videos of the debris that hit the shuttle, NASA's consultants decided it was not a significant safety issue. He also said that inspecting the shuttle during flight, perhaps with commercial or intelligence satellites, would at most have shown surface damage to the black-coated tiles.

''By itself a white tile is not an alarming fact,'' he said. ''It does not show us the depth of tile that may have been shaved off.''

Even if NASA had identified damage early in the mission, the crew was largely helpless to fix any problem.

Orbiting 30 miles below the international space station, Columbia did not have enough propulsion to reach the station and dock there for repairs, NASA officials and specialists said. It's also unlikely that adjusting the flight trajectory could have made for a smoother reentry, since the route is designed to minimize heat and pressure, officials said.

Two of Columbia's astronauts were trained to do spacewalks, but only in the cargo bay. No one has ever done a spacewalk onto the underbelly of the shuttle, where there are no handholds to prevent an astronaut from floating away.

Though they did not believe the damage was serious, Dittemore said, NASA did consider that option. ''We were concerned that them trying to position themselves under the vehicle could cause more damage than we were trying to fix,'' he said.

Any external rescue attempt, such as sending another craft to pick up the astronauts as they orbited earth, would have been unprecedented, risky, and uncertain.

But Theodore Postol, MIT professor of science, technology and national security policy, said that if a significant problem had been discovered at the beginning of the mission, there might have been time to send a rescue craft.

''If you could get life support up there and they could sit in orbit for a month,'' he said, ''it would be difficult but it doesn't sound to me to be impossible.''

Others suggested that NASA might have been able to save the astronauts in a less dramatic fashion -- by better addressing warnings about the fuel tank insulation, the heat-insulation tiles, and other problems identified in recent reports.

In March 2000, a panel led by Henry McDonald of NASA's Ames Research Center pointed to problems detecting structural cracks and corrosion underneath the tiles, and noted that key parts of the shuttle's structure can't be inspected during flight.

''This was bound to happen,'' said James Longuski, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Purdue University. ''I think that it's more unsafe than we need to accept. Mercury and Apollo vehicles . . . were safer systems than the shuttle.''

In October, the shuttle Atlantis lost a piece of insulation from a fuel tank that struck the skirt of one of its solid-fuel booster rockets. Sometimes, NASA calls off launches if ice on the tanks gets too heavy, said Griffin.

Columbia was still within the first four minutes of flight when the debris hit its side, and could have aborted the launch. But that maneuver is extremely dangerous and would only be attempted if an engine failed, Griffin said.

Columbia had no robotic arm onboard and did not carry the materials to make a repair, Dittemore said. The crew had taken some photographs of the tank that might have provided information, but they were on film, not digital images, and were put aside for development on their return.

In early shuttle missions, NASA put a camera on the end of the shuttle's robotic arm to inspect tile damage. ''We actually would take it and bring it around on the other side and look at the tiles,'' said John M. Klineberg, former head of the Goddard Space Center. The practice eventually stopped, he said: ''We were pretty confident you could lose quite a few tiles and still not get into a position where you'd have burn-through.''

Griffin said that if there were a hole big enough in the shuttle's thermal coating, the astronauts could have ''been in a situation where they know they're not going to make it . . . the only thing you might get out of looking at it is you could do the accident investigation before the accident happens.''

He was at Mission Control when Apollo 13, reentering the atmosphere with a possibly damaged heat shield, lost communication for an unusually long time. ''Nobody said anything but we were all thinking, 'Uh-oh . . . we've lost them,' '' he said.

But the craft reappeared and landed.

In the worst-case scenario, a crippled Columbia might have orbited for a month or so until gravity dragged it to its doom.

''It would be visible at dawn and dusk, and that would be pretty creepy,'' said James E. Oberg, a former NASA official. ''But on the other hand that would also be a memorial. It would be a Viking funeral.''

Gareth Cook and Hiawatha Bray of the Globe staff and wire services contributed to this report. Anne Barnard can be reached at abarnard@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 2/3/2003.
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