Shuttle Atlantis almost lost in 1988

By Phil Plait | March 31, 2009 10:00 am

The space news site SpaceFlightNow has an incredible article up right now about how, in December of 1988, not three years after the destruction of the Space Shuttle Challenger, NASA almost lost Atlantis.

Holy crap. You have to read this article. Insulation from one of the solid rocket boosters fell and slammed into the orbiter’s underside, damaging (it was found later) over 700 tiles along half the length of Atlantis!

Yikes. Seriously, yikes.

When the crew onboard did a camera check of the tiles, they found the damage and were obviously seriously concerned. They reported it to Mission Control, who looked at the video and said there was no cause for concern. Astronauts Mike Mullane and Robert Gibson knew better. In fact, they thought that re-entry might very well kill them. It didn’t, but it was a near thing. One tile was totally gone, allowing the (non-vital) metal underneath it to partially melt.

Never heard this story, have you? I’m not surprised. This Atlantis mission was blacked-out because it was done for the Department of Defense; the Shuttle was doing secret military work. This is a point of contention for many people, since NASA is a civilian agency, but there you go. The video the astronauts took of the orbiter’s belly had to be encrypted and somewhat low-res, so ground controllers didn’t get a good view of the damage… but they should have seen enough to raise alarms. Gibson didn’t argue with ground control:

…the resolution on the encrypted video was that bad that [ground control] based a conclusion on it that was in gross error. … If I had said hey, I think this is important enough for us to break the encryption and send you guys clear video, oh, it would have been pandemonium down there at DOD. But in hindsight, oh man, that’s what we should have done.

In 1988 there was no safe haven on orbit for the Shuttle, so even if the orbiter were so damaged it would be destroyed on re-entry, not much could be done about it. I would think NASA would tell the astronauts if this were the case; there might be some things that can be done to maximize the safety of the crew’s return — changing the re-entry angle to take pressure off the damaged right wing comes to mind, though it’s not clear how much that would help — and talking to the astronauts is the only way to do that. So it looks like the people on the ground really thought the damage wasn’t critical.

As the whole world found out 15 years later, insulation hitting tiles can indeed be critical, when we lost Columbia in 2003.

NASA is a big agency, and it has loads of innovative people, creative people, people who spend their whole lives dreaming of space exploration. But it is also a government agency, capable of incredible inertia and groupthink. I hope that the folks at NASA have learned these lessons well. In the next few years NASA may once again get the chance to have its reach exceed its grasp as it did during the magnificent Apollo era, and it would be a loss for everyone if bureaucracy and red tape were to shorten that reach.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind

Comments (62)

  1. Charles Boyer

    There are other incidents that have yet to come out. Not as serious as that one, but still, cause for concern.

    This incident should have prevented the Columbia disaster, but unfortunately the safety culture (or lack thereof) allowed another similar error to claim an orbiter and its crew.

  2. Charles Boyer

    Also, Phil, Mir was in orbit during that time, albeit its first iteration. I wonder if it could have been used to supply a temporary haven while Columbia or Discovery were stacked and launched to rescue the crew.

  3. Greg

    Holy Fleurking Shnit! Wow, I’m not a conspiracy guy, but ya gotta think that there are plenty of little Cold War-era factoids out there like this.

  4. STS-27 astronaut Mike Mullane told the story in some detail in his 2006 biography “Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut” (highly recommended, not just for this story).

  5. DrFlimmer

    I’ve already read that article when it came out a few days ago. Holy moly! And the same spacecraft was just driven to the launch pad this morning for its flight to Hubble in May. Hopefully, it will go as well as the last flights!

  6. Cheyenne

    Why couldn’t NASA disclose the damage to the tiles to the public and the scientific community after it landed? Doing classified defense work almost certainly means lofting a classified spy/intel Sat (and I would bet a nickel this was for the NSA or NRO and not the Defense Dept by the way). The payload is classified – why would the state of the shuttle be after it touches down?

    “Years later, Gibson would be asked to brief the Columbia Accident Investigation Board about his experiences aboard Atlantis and as the tale was told, “their jaws dropped,” he said.”

    I wonder if Columbia would have been lost if the damage to Atlantis had been more disclosed. I would bet they would have adopted some of the changes that the Columbia review board have implemented (re-designs, better inspection, limited capability to fix the tiles in orbit, etc).

    I’m not a conspiracy nutter and I know we have to classify things – but after the mission like this it seems ridiculous that this didn’t come to light earlier given that the same launch vehicle was going to be used for unclassified missions.

  7. Gareth

    “Also, Phil, Mir was in orbit during that time, albeit its first iteration. I wonder if it could have been used to supply a temporary haven while Columbia or Discovery were stacked and launched to rescue the crew.”

    I’d imagine Mir would have been on a rather different orbit to Atlantis, so the shuttle would have had to expend rather a LOT of fuel to be able to reach it.

  8. bjn

    Ever work for a corporation? “Incredible inertia and groupthink” aren’t exclusive to government agencies. The groupthink of Wall Street, investment banks, ponzied investors, GM and Chrysler isn’t any different in nature.

  9. Helioprogenus

    I can’t believe this is actually a real incident. Not that I’m disagreeing with this account, but I guess we can’t exactly criticize Soviet space exploration with the same undercurrent of laughter for their flippant behavior towards human life.

  10. CryoTank

    Wow, that was a close one for the Astronauts.

    Conspiracy? Nah. Bad management, bad decision making, a bloated bureaucracy and paranoid military can lead to disaster very easily, and maybe a loss of reality…

  11. Your Fiberglas bathroom vanity surivives because its tough matrix/hard reinforcement stops crack propagation. If the Space Scuttle’s liquid fuel tankage foam layup included some surface-activated glass, Spectra, or carbon fiber within its top few inches there would be no spalling when air blew into nascent cracks during launch. Man In Space is process without product managed by a collection of refractory idiots. (Kevlar is anisotropic toward expansion with moisture. Florida is moist. More studies are needed.)

  12. Makes you wonder if NASA saw what sort of damage a shuttle could survive with (in the case of STS-119) and that influenced their decisions with Columbia in 2003.

  13. Alan

    “This is a point of contention for many people, since NASA is a civilian agency, but there you go.”

    Huh? That is half the point of the Space Shuttle, to do military missions. Why do you think it is so over-the-top in size, the military wanted to send giant stuff up into space. If it was just a civilian vehicle it would have probably been smaller and more reasonably designed.

  14. Flak

    I shudder to think of the repercussions to the entire manned spaceflight program had Atlantis been lost a mere two years after Challenger exploded. The public criticism of NASA and its administration would have been unimaginable and public faith in the agency (which is often shaky to begin with) would have been shredded. Makes me wonder if that’s the reason it was kept quiet.

  15. Mark Wilcox

    But this is why NASA needs to get out of manned flight. The fact is that most people don’t care when NASA flies. Yes, we’ll be real excited on the next moon landing because everyone who was around for the first one, will probably well, be dead.

    But in reality – most people only pay attention when something bad happens.

    And I’m not sure why my tax dollars should pay for NASA anyway. Maybe it made sense back in the Cold War but not any more.

    I sometimes cry when I think what the Rutan brothers might have done had space flight not been something only the US govt can do. And we shouldn’t be cutting the feet out from under the next generation of space pioneers.

  16. Well, we just had a recent example that shows that NASA has taken these lessons to heart. Remember, Discovery was delayed for a month to make absolutely 100% sure that a valve problem which most thought wouldn’t be a problem really wouldn’t be a problem. The amount of work done on that issue really is a testament to th shuttle workers and the shuttle program itself.

    Also, if anyone wants to do a little outside reading, check out NASASpaceflight.com (linked to in my name). Chris Bergin reports meeting notes down to the smallest detail. The shuttle program doesn’t mess around anymore since even the smallest deviation is looked into.

  17. The shuttle program doesn’t mess around anymore since even the smallest deviation is looked into.

    How many people had to die before NASA got interested in the minutiae again?

  18. Radwaste

    Say – this is the first time I’ve heard that the boosters are insulated.

  19. gss_000

    @Mark Wilcox

    Maybe people don’t pay rapt attention, but they idea that they are not interested or don’t care is an urban myth.

    A national survey by the Coalition for Space Exploration did find that a minority (16%) of people believed they were well informed about the space program. However, when initially asked, they found that 88% valued the space program. After participants learned that NASA only received $17 billion for the 2008 budget (over 50% overestimated it and 63% were surprised it was that low) and how much of today’s tech was derived from NASA’s work, that number jumped up to 96%. Yup, people don’t care.

    BTW, no one is “cutting the feet” out of anyone. Guess who’s tech is being used by SpaceX for their heat sheald and helping them test it? Guess which agency is helping out with some of the Google Lunar X Prize designs? Guess what program actually sent out not one, but two Request for Information for science experiments that could be done on suborbital space planes to utilize them? NASA is not stopping NewSpace now. The economy is doing that. NewSpace, which I think is a great thing, is just learning that its hype about doing things cheaply and quickly is still just that.

  20. “Also, Phil, Mir was in orbit during that time, albeit its first iteration. I wonder if it could have been used to supply a temporary haven while Columbia or Discovery were stacked and launched to rescue the crew.”

    “I’d imagine Mir would have been on a rather different orbit to Atlantis, so the shuttle would have had to expend rather a LOT of fuel to be able to reach it.”

    Not only that, I’m sure the Soviets (since they WERE still Soviets in 1988) would have had something to say about a space shuttle on a classified mission by the Department of Defense docking with their shiny brand-new space station.

  21. So, this mission was so secretive, that even ground controllers could not see the damage because the video was encrypted??? If that is the case, it begs the question, ‘What the hell were they doing up there, that even the guys who are responsible for the safety of the crew had to be kept out of the loop?’

    Well, this should give the Conspiracy Nutters w*t Dreams for the next few years!

  22. I don’t see the point of classifying any information in a democracy. But then I guess I’m just one of those crazy liberals I keep hearing about.

  23. whee read that about the atlantis on Sunday – scarry enough.

    I think I wouldve had a similar reaction if I had to ride the thing back down. I read that the Ares I maybe delayed another 18months or maybe even cancelled. Meaning they’re leaning toward extending shuttle missions for another 2 years.

  24. snafu

    Re. Mir

    Seconding the comments above. Anyone who’s played around with orbitersim (highly recommended…good fun!) knows how expensive changing the inclination angle of a low earth orbit is in fuel terms.

    (yes…there are tricks. and a home pc simulator is hardly authoritative. and I don’t have the orbit details to hand. but we have absolutely no reason to believe that such a transfer was possible).

  25. This is obviously Barack Obama’s fault, somehow.

    Oops! Wrong blog.

  26. Jojo

    Interesting article. It’s funny, it seems most people took this differently than I did. While I was reading it, all I could think was how this incident may have lead to the loss of Columbia. I suspect that some of the engineers making the decisions for Columbia did know about what happened to Atlantis and mistook luck for a demonstration of capability.

  27. ND

    I don’t think the shuttle was equiped with any docking mechanism compatible with the Mir. When the shuttle ultimately did dock with Mir on later missions (it did happen, and Mir looked small with the shuttle next to it), an adapter needed to be added to Mir to allow this to happen.

    One would have needed some spacesuit or other mechanism to transfer personel to the Mir and then buy some soyuz flights to bring the US astronauts down.

    If that was possible, why bother to going to Mir when soyuz could be sent to the orbitting shuttle directly and at least drop off supplies to give time for a proper rescue mission.

    These scenarios are based on a lot of assumptions obviously.

    As the chinese start sending more people into space I think there should be some common agreements on rescue protocols between the different space agencies. Like common docking mechanisms or supply and people transfer methods. The russian autonomous Progress supply module has a rock solid history.

  28. RAF

    This really is criminal. Columbia could have been avoided.

  29. unquiet_mind

    TomJoe Says:
    The shuttle program doesn’t mess around anymore since even the smallest deviation is looked into.
    How many people had to die before NASA got interested in the minutiae again?

    Indeed.

    The whole thing is astounding. And yet not…
    “They” (and I emphasize the “quotes”) had put those 7 people on Challenger, knowingly sending them to their deaths, just two years prior. Given NASA’s track record then and since, why am I really so surprised at another example of their total incompetence when it comes to the safety of their astronauts? (And whatever the “reasons” or “excuses” there may be for that incompetence is irrelevant–you make mistakes, people die.) And military involvement? Well, now your’re just asking for a whole lotta badness.

    In general, I fully support NASA, and the relative lack of funding is absurd. But those shuttles still scare the frak out of me. I’m not saying I think we should end human space flight, not at all. There will obviously always be risk. The astronauts accept that risk in choosing to do what they do. Hell, if I had what it took to do something that amazing, I’d be right there with them. But they should be able to trust that the relevant persons will do everything humanly possible to minimize that risk, that their literal lives will always take priority. So, retire the remaining shuttles, stay ground-bound for a few years if that’s what it takes, and get it right this time.

  30. This is scary and infuriating at the same time. This incident should have been enough for NASA to fix the problem instead of waiting until we had lost another shuttle and all those people’s lives.

  31. Charles Boyer

    “Huh? That is half the point of the Space Shuttle, to do military missions. Why do you think it is so over-the-top in size, the military wanted to send giant stuff up into space.”

    They wanted to not only lift objects but to also return them.

    Think ‘Keyhole.” : -)

    As far as the posit towards potentially heading to Mir, keep in mind that had the situation been much worse, you are talking about the crew WILL die, not might, not could, but WILL. Sure, the math might not work out to go towards Mir, but it is an interesting thought experiment.

    It was sort of a twist on the book “Marooned” — well worth reading. Martin Caidin was a great writer.

  32. “The russian autonomous Progress supply module has a rock solid history.”

    The Russian space program has certainly been a model of consistency, but I had to laugh at that one.

  33. Sir Eccles

    “The russian autonomous Progress supply module has a rock solid history.”

    The Russian space program has certainly been a model of consistency, but I had to laugh at that one.

    No it’s true, as in “the progress supply module was as solid as a rock as it hit the space station”.

  34. Gareth

    “As far as the posit towards potentially heading to Mir, keep in mind that had the situation been much worse, you are talking about the crew WILL die, not might, not could, but WILL. Sure, the math might not work out to go towards Mir, but it is an interesting thought experiment.”

    I was bored so I decided to do a “back of an envelope” rough calculation. I calculate that with STS-27′s height of approximately 442km (between 473 and 447km), and inclination of 57 degrees, in order to plane-change to Mir’s inclination of 51.6 degrees, its delta-V would need to be around 717m/s (I pretended it was a circular orbit!). According to the wiki page about the space shuttle OMS engines (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orbital_Maneuvering_System), the Shuttle carries about enough fuel for about 300m/s. So it wouldn’t even manage half of the DV required to reach the inclination of Mir, let alone reduce its orbit by about 50km to put it on the same orbit.

    Interesting thought experiment, but it doesn’t look like Mir would have been an option.

    Of course, I could be wrong, as I frequently am with my maths!!! I’m sure someone will point it out if I am… ;o)

  35. dziban

    “Also, Phil, Mir was in orbit during that time, albeit its first iteration. I wonder if it could have been used to supply a temporary haven while Columbia or Discovery were stacked and launched to rescue the crew.”

    Not to mention that in 1988, I’m not entirely sure the Soviets would have allowed such a thing to take place.

  36. Selasphorus

    Wow, that’s really eye-opening. I agree, it seems likely that if Atlantis had been lost, the entire program would have been scrapped.

  37. ND

    The progress cargo ship that hit the Mir was under a new cheaper manual docking system. They were trying out a cheaper system but it didn’t work out.

  38. DrFlimmer

    They were trying out a cheaper system but it didn’t work out.

    I guess that tells us something far beyond the realm of space travel……

  39. ND

    Found some more details about the Mir/Progress collision. Has more details than I remembered:

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/mir-crash-arose-from-russian-spending-cuts-cuts-caused-mir-crash-with-1182424.html

    Basically the Ukrainian programmers who wrote the progress docking software upped the license fees and the Russians looked for a cheaper system.

  40. MadScientist

    I have a problem with credulity here. They had a camera to inspect the undercarriage in 1988 and yet make such a big deal about how hard it is to inspect the shuttle in space in 2008? What’s the story there; this is sounding a bit biblical to me.

  41. Bill

    This is not news. The whole story was told years ago when Mike Mullane’s book came out. You obviously did not read it.

  42. Radwaste

    MadScientist, that’s not all. Not only wouldn’t the boom reach as installed on Columbia years later, when Roger Tetrault, a member of the CAIB, spoke at my company, he didn’t mention this incident – even though Atlantis was in preps for launch when Columbia died. SRB “insulation” was also NOT part of the CAIB investigation, even though they looked for other items then foam that might strike the Orbiter (and found some – explosive bolts).

    Questions so far: 1) What part of the SRB is “insulation”? 2) How was it common practice to investigate tiles in 1988? 3) In case of a special request, who made the EVA with the camera – or what fancy extension was added to the boom? 4) What part of Shuttle operations suggests that they are secret apart from the payload?

  43. justcorbly

    @Mark Wilcox:

    But this is why NASA needs to get out of manned flight. The fact is that most people don’t care when NASA flies.

    What people care about is not relevant to space exploration. People don’t care about many necessary things.

    …in reality – most people only pay attention when something bad happens.

    That damms those people, not NASA.

    …I’m not sure why my tax dollars should pay for NASA anyway.

    Do you have a clue about what NASA does?

    I sometimes cry when I think what the Rutan brothers might have done…

    Rutan hasn’t been stoped from doing anything. So far, they’ve built a little airplane that scoots to about 2000 mph and then costs to 60 miles in altitude. Big whoop. That could have been done 40 years ago if anyone thought it had a point. Remember, aircraft flew faster than 200 mph decades ago, and the X-15 flew higher than Rutan’s plane.

    The hardest part of going to and from orbit is getting back. Rutan’s plane used an oddball “reentry” (not much of a rentry when you are only going 2000 mph) technique that will not work for a vehicle returning from orbit. Rutan and all the other commercial ventures trying to fly to and from orbit face the same problem NASA and everyone else faces: How to survive an 18,000 mph into the atmosphere. You’ve got two choices: Build a conical shaped vehicle with an ablative heat shield, like Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Soyuz and the rest, or build a winged vehicle and slather the heat shield across the bottom of the vehicle. If it was my call, I go for the conical vehicle, since wings are useless in space.

  44. Cairnos

    ND sais “The progress cargo ship that hit the Mir was under a new cheaper manual docking system. They were trying out a cheaper system but it didn’t work out.”

    Words to chill an astronauts heart “Great news guys, we found an even lower bidder for that critical component!”

  45. Glad to see this is catching some interest. Most of the facts are in the post-Columbia CAIB report on pages 127 and 128. Interesting to get the astronauts quotes and post-landing images.

    Also, on the Mir/Progess collision, part of the problem was attempting to do it manually with a system that had failed before.

  46. Dave Huntsman

    That was a good writeup – as far as it went. For those who are masochistic….. I just transmitted the following to the CBS reporter who wrote the story.
    ————————————–
    Bill -
    ((I just realize how long this is as I went to send it; sorry about that. But I think at least you’ll agree it’s all relevant to your story, Columbia, not well known shuttle history, etc.))

    You wrote a good report; except that the ‘story’ for history, really didn’t end there.

    I was in the Space Shuttle Program Office at the time (but not working that particular mission). While at a meeting in Los Angeles the Shuttle Program Manager, Dick Kohrs, called me from Houston: the vehicle had landed at Edwards, there was some sort of damage, and he wanted me to go up there and take a look at it.

    I was shocked at what I saw. For a black (higher-temperature) tile to come off and have there be damage to the structure was something unprecedented. However, we didn’t have procedures in place in those days that would delay the flight back to Florida on the 747 until samples and other data were taken: I had to inspect the vehicle while it was being prepped for that ferry flight.

    The extent of the damage and potential serious consequences if the cause was not found and fixed led Shuttle Program Management to decide that the issue had to be treated with more seriousness than the normal post-mission anomaly assessment process would give it. A decision was made to form a dedicated incident assessment team (not ‘accident team’, since no accident had actually occurred).

    The first issue was who to put on the team. The most likely suspect as to accident cause was the foam insulation system on the big external tank falling off and striking the orbiter; a secondary possibility was pieces falling off of either of the two solid rocket boosters. Both were the responsibility of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. A totally independent inquiry would ideally have therefore assigned someone not of MSFC to head up the inquiry; however, this was fraught with internal NASA problems. The SRBs had caused the Challenger accident, which was still burned into all of our memories. There were still some engineers at MSFC smarting at having been ‘blamed’ for the first U.S. deaths in space; and it was decided that any corrective actions would go down better if it were perceived as coming from a MSFC-led team, rather than led by someone from the Shuttle Program Office; which some at MSFC still referred to not as “the Program Office”, but as “Houston” – in a derisive manner. So a senior MSFC manager who also had the confidence of Shuttle Program Management was picked to lead the incident assessment team.

    The Team ended up finding, surprisingly, that the culprit was not the external tank, but one of the solid rocket boosters; where a piece of forward ablator – a material much denser than the ET’s lightweight foam insulation – had come off and struck the orbiter. The Team made specific recommendations regarding fixing that particular problem; but it also found that the issue of debris coming off of the stack and causing damage to the orbiter was not going to go away, and was likely to get worse as the system aged. There was also no indication that the orbiter tiles would ever get any ‘tougher’ or more resistant to damage; and even if they did, the windows would always remain a problem.

    But the Team concluded that was that this was a technical issue that would also continue to fall through the cracks of the Space Shuttle Program. The reason: each of the four major elements of the Program – Main Engines, SRBs, ET, Orbiter – had their own Project Managers (the first three in Huntsville, Alabama, the latter in Houston). The Managers in Alabama felt that getting debris down to zero was not realistic, so the Houston Program Office should do something or accept the risk and keep flying. The Orbiter Project Office in Houston felt they couldn’t toughen tiles or windows, so the Program Office should do something about it, or accept the risk and keep flying.

    The Team recommended that the Shuttle Program Office appoint one person full-time from then on to lead inter-Center teams in tracking the various parts of the debris damage problem, recommend monitoring schemes, testing current and new materials, assess issues during missions – and keep the issue visible to Program Management. The Program Office accepted that recommendation; and I was appointed Debris Mitigation Manager.

    However, when I “moved on” in the bureaucracy in early 1990 (to become head of System Engineering for the international space station, in Washington), I was not replaced. Instead, feeling that concern about the debris issue was ‘overdone’ and essentially fixed, responsibility was given to another engineer as an added responsibility. NASA never had a full-time Debris Manager after that, right up until the Columbia accident, 13 years later.

    —–

    However, I would like to add one other thought: while STS-27 was indeed the worst tile-damage flight, it was not, in my opinion, the closest we came to destruction of vehicle among early shuttle flights. In my mind, that designation goes to the 9th space shuttle flight, the first one carrying the European Spacelab, commanded by veteran astronaut John Young. During entry, a true, near-simultaneous double failure occurred on the vehicle. Not with the tiles on the outside, but on 2 of the 3 turbine power units buried in the tail section (APUs – Auxiliary Power Units) which powered the vehicle hydraulics and the control surfaces.

    Powered by dangerous hydrazine, two of the three systems had, almost simultaneously, sprung hydrazine leaks. Hydrazine is very reactive; when the APUs started dripping hydrazine during entry, it started reacting with the various insulation on the systems in the tail section. This dripping started before the vehicle entered the atmosphere, where there was little oxygen; but as they got lower, the many vent valves in the vehicle automatically opened, as normal, to let the atmosphere in to equalize pressure. This meant, of course, that the vents were letting oxygen in – and the combination of energy released by the dripping hydrazine and decomposing insulation, led to two, independent, near-simultaneous fires getting starting in the tail section, while the vehicle was still coming down.

    To be 100% functional, the vehicle needed two of the three systems to be working most of the time. Fortunately, the two systems that were on fire held in there, through touchdown and rollout. After wheels stop, however, both detonated (a polite term for ‘exploded’), leading to their shutting down – right before they were commanded to shut down. In short, it was close.

    Mission Control knew something was squirrely, but didn’t know what. The lead mechanical systems flight controller on console at that time – the same group responsible for tile assessment – urged the ground crew at Edwards to caution, since something had happened with a hydrazine-containing system and no one understood what.

    Two simultaneous failures in critical flight systems during entry – lasting just long enough for the crew to get down safely – ranks as the closest call we ever had, certainly before Challenger.

    Dave Huntsman
    The above is all from memory; I have no files left to check things against. You shouldn’t trust my recall any more than my wife does.

  47. P. Darvio

    I am a Shuttle fan but the program is full of near misses from STS-1 (which killed 2 technicans 2 weeks before its maiden flight). STS-1 also had a near burn through on the landing gear door. STS-2 almost had a burn through on the SRB’s like Challenger. STS-9 had 2 (out of 5) computers fail in orbit and one of the APU’s was on fire as it landed. STS-41D also lost a number of tiles and had damage to the area exposed (from memory this mission also had a tyre blowout on rollout after landing). STS-51F had an engine failure during launch just after the call of ATO (abort to orbit). If the engine had shutdown 30 seconds earlier they likely would have crashed into the Atlantic as a second engine was also about to shutdown (only a quick thinking flight controller ordered an “inhibit” on the 2nd engine shutdown). Even since the last return to flight (STS-114) there have been near misses like STS-126 flow control value failure, one flight in 2007 had a micro-meteorite hit the radiators in the cargo bay that just missed a freon loop. If it had hit the piping the mission would have been terminated early immediately.

  48. I recall first reading about the STS 27 excessive tile damage about six years ago, as described here:
    http://www.blackbirds.net/u2/u2_photo_gallery/shuttle-launch-images/index.html

    Of course, not much informatioon was available…

  49. ND

    Cairnos: “Words to chill an astronauts heart “Great news guys, we found an even lower bidder for that critical component!”

    hehe

    “And guess what! It’s cheap becuase it’s already been paid for. You guys are the components. Here’s the joystick.”

  50. MJ

    It seems to me like the biggest reason they told the astronauts not to worry is that there was absolutely nothing they could have done anyway, at least not in 1988.

  51. Beelzebud

    I wonder how many of these covert missions they actually do, that we never hear about. It must be interesting living near those launch pads. It’s not like you can hide something like that. I wonder how many of those folks have seen launches that they never see reported in the news.

  52. idav

    Wait a minute…When Colombia disintegrated didn’t NASA emphasize that a shuttle in orbit has no way to evaluate the extent of the damage done to its heat shielding?

    How did they do it in 1988?

  53. idav-

    In 1988, they had an arm (RMS) on their mission. Columbia did not. Inspecting Columbia would have involved an EVA outside of the cargo bay area.

    Beelzebud-

    The military shuttle missions (there were 10 according to Wikipedia) were talked about minimally, for example the launch time would be announced just a few minutes before launch. The more exciting launch schedule (not shuttle, though there was a plan for them to fly before Challenger) was for people who live near Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Those missions weren’t publicly acknowledged until 1996.

  54. ND

    Tom Hill,

    Is the RMS removed on certain missions? I was under the impression that it was always there. It’s extra weight if you don’t need it I guess.

  55. justcorbly

    @Beezlebud: The military missions weren’t covert, only the payloads. Yes, NASA turned off the PR machine, but the schedules were public and the launches and the landings were released to the media.(It’s worth remembering that a Shuttle on the pad in Cocoa Beach can be seen for miles around. And the launch can be seen by a good chunk of the population of Florida, especially at night.)

    Re: Vandenberg — The Shuttle never flew from Vandenberg, as in never.

  56. Wayne Conrad

    A few years back, when a consultant for a fortune 500 company, I was asked to take part in one of those infernal team-building exercises. During the exercise we were split into “teams.” We were told that each team had crashed our rocket on the moon and had to make it to a moon base using only the supplies we had with us. Given a list of supplies, we had to pick from that list a limited number of supplies in two ways: Individually, and as a group. We then compared our lists with the official NASA recommendations. It was no great surprise that the lists picked by groups more closely matched the NASA recommendations than did the lists picked by individuals.

    The team-building leader then asked for people who knew what the moral was to raise their hands. A few hands went up, with the usual team players–mid-level managers–giving the answers they thought they were supposed to give: “You’ll make better decisions when consulting your fellow employees.” I knew that my fellow workers had too much trust in NASA as an authority, and too much trust in authority in general to see that there may be another answer. I raised my hand, too, and when the leader called on me, I gave my answer:

    “NASA makes decisions by committee.”

    How quickly the leader called on another to get the “correct” answer and put my answer behind! The true lesson of the team-building exercise was to give the answer that authority expected, and no other. Didn’t yielding to authority in the face of contrary evidence lead to the demise of two space shuttles?

  57. dreikin

    I find it odd that the encryption would have affected the image quality. It’s not too hard to make a lossless encryption system, even streaming – after all, that’s how pretty much all of them work (losslessly, that is).

  58. Sili

    I can’t comment upon whether it would have been possible to reach Mir, but I’m rather miffed at the suggestion that Soviets wouldn’t “have allowed such a thing to happen”.

    First of all the Cold War was pretty much melted by then (“Mr Gorbachov, tear down this wall yaddah yaddah.”)

    Secondly, imagine what a propaganda victory it would have been for the USSR to bail out the US – and that on a mission that might have been directed against them.

    If anyone “wouldn’t have allowed such a thing”, I wouldn’t be surprised had it been the US, not the USSR.

  59. coolstar

    Interesting story, even when it was first told in Mullane’s autobiography a few years ago!
    Our Bald Astronomer has much too much faith in NASA competence! Especially as they’ve shown their INCOMPETENCE in the loss of two shuttle crews, both in accidents which were very preventable. Reminds me of the 1980′s when Well Established, Tenured Astronomers were telling me we HAD to support the Space Station (otherwise known as someplace for the shuttle to go) or else NASA would cut our astronomy funding! Oh woes is me! Every OTHER science organization in the U.S. OTHER than the American Astronomical Society said the space station was a waste of time and money, and of course, they were correct.

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