One of the most chilling parts of yesterday’s NASA news conference was one simple statement of fact, repeated again and again: Even if they’d known the thermal tiles on the underbelly of the shuttle had been fatally damaged, there was nothing they could have done about it anyway.
(It occurs to me that had they truly known something like this was going to happen, they could have housed the astronauts, on an emergency basis, on the space station until they came up with some way to get them down. I believe the Russians have unmanned capsules that bring supplies up and so forth. In any case, now it’s moot. Late Update: It seems my surmise was wrong. I’m told there are at least two reasons why such a hook-up would not have been doable. A) The Columbia lacked the proper docking apparatus and B) Once in orbit, there was no way to get it to the Space Station.)
It turns out that back in 1980, while NASA was trying to work out the kinks on this particular ship, Columbia, Gregg Easterbrook wrote a lengthy article in The Washington Monthly questioning just how spaceworthy the whole design really was. Here’s one passage …
Some suspect the tile mounting is the least of Columbia’s difficulties. “I don’t think anybody appreciates the depths of the problems,” Kapryan says. The tiles are the most important system NASA has ever designed as “safe life.” That means there is no back-up for them. If they fail, the shuttle burns on reentry. If enough fall off, the shuttle may become unstable during landing, and thus un-pilotable. The worry runs deep enough that NASA investigated installing a crane assembly in Columbia so the crew could inspect and repair damaged tiles in space. (Verdict: Can’t be done. You can hardly do it on the ground.)
The Monthly has a lengthy excerpt up now on their website (presumably the whole article is to follow). Definitely go take a look. Late Update: The complete Easterbrook article is now online at the Monthly website.