Frozen water, plastic bags, spacesuits — anything and everything normally carried on a space shuttle — are being considered as possible solutions by engineers at NASA who are trying to figure out what could have done to save the astronauts on the shuttle Columbia.
An internal NASA group, the Missions Operations Directorate, is charged with figuring out what could have been done.
It's a sensitive topic: No one wants to think an opportunity was missed to keep the orbiter from disintegrating over Texas as it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere on Feb. 1. It was too high for the astronauts to bail out, and going much too fast — 18 times the speed of sound.
Investigators have said they believe the accident was most likely caused by a hole that got punched in the leading edge of the shuttle's left wing when a piece of insulating foam fell off the external fuel tank on liftoff.
One report looked at re-entry options like cooling the left wing, and dumping all excess weight over the side of the payload bay.
Still to be analyzed, though, according to one source close to the investigation, is the option of letting Columbia return after "stuffing" high temperature material into the damaged area of the wing's leading edge.
Engineers want to know if it would be possible to freeze water, pack it into a hole, and cover it with more heat-retardant material. They hope analysis of that question will show whether Columbia could have survived the re-entry heating for the five minutes it needed to get past the point of danger.
Reversal on 'What Could Have Been Done'
Three weeks ago the head of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, retired Adm. Harold Gehman, said he wasn't sure that this "What could you do?" line of questioning should be part of the inquiry. His thinking has clearly changed.
"When we started to consider that, we found everyone involved was too close, and their emotions were still running too high," he said recently. "And we just decided some things were too sensitive, some things were offensive to the families. One of the issues of course was what could have been done to save the vehicle if God had told you on the fourth day that you've got a hole in your vehicle — what would you have done?"
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe has said repeatedly that he would have done whatever was necessary to save the seven astronauts.
"There is no way we would have abandoned them," he said.
Rescue Mission Scenario
Another scenario that has been considered is a shuttle rescue mission.
Florida Today obtained early information about a study completed by the Missions Operations directorate that explores the possibility of launching the shuttle Atlantis on a mission in time to rescue the crew of Columbia.
The mission would have required dramatically speeding up a scheduled March 1 launch of Atlantis and a series of spacewalks to transfer the seven astronauts on Columbia.
The newspaper quoted an investigator close to the study who said "the space walks would have been spotty" but not impossible. "But the scrambling of Atlantis looks like it could have worked, and Columbia could have stayed in orbit plenty long enough for Atlantis to get there."
Is all of this useless speculation? Not necessarily, because these are scenarios NASA needs to develop before it can start flying shuttles again.
NASA officials have said all of the rescue scenarios are moot, however, as far as Columbia was concerned because no analysis at the time indicated that there was a problem that required such heroic measures.