Tragic. Just tragic. Back on that awful day last February 1st when the shuttle Columbia ripped and burned apart over Texas, I never really believed that some sort of rescue or repair mission wasn't possible -- either an attempt at a repair of some sort, or sending one of the other shuttles up to save the crew. Couldn't they rush another shuttle up to rescue them? Couldn't they do a spacewalk and fix the damage? The conceit of the NASA brass was that there was simply nothing that could have been done -- a claim that took a lot of sting out of the fact that so little was in fact done to find out what damage the ship had sustained.
That never sounded right to me. And now it turns out that I and, I'm sure, many, many others who were similarly unconvinced were right.
You probably remember in the movie Apollo 13 when a crack NASA team of white-buttoned-down-shirted gizmocrats ingeniously brainstormed a way to use all the available materials on the crippled spacecraft to get the three astronauts home safely. Recently, as part of the investigation, NASA set a similar team to work on devising possible rescue or repair plans -- as though they had known in time that something was wrong.
You almost wish they hadn't, but the team came up with two very credible -- though certainly not foolproof -- plans to rescue the seven astronauts. In both scenarios the ship, Columbia, was doomed. But not necessarily the crew. One plan was to quickly get the shuttle Atlantis into space for a rescue. It turns out this would have been possible. The question was how quickly they could get it to launch. And that would have been a close call. If they couldn't have managed that in time there was a repair that might have worked. A space walk to the underside of the shuttle, it turns out, would have been feasible. The plan would have been to hope the repair held on through the most violent part of reentry and then have the astronauts parachute out at about 35,000 feet.
None of these ideas were sure-fire, of course. But they would have had a fighting chance. And as the author of the MSNBC exclusive says, under the pressure of actually having lives to save, they might have come up with even more ingenious solutions.
Read it and, literally, weep.