Shuttle Atlantis almost lost in 1988

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
March 31 2009 10:00 AM

Shuttle Atlantis almost lost in 1988

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!

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Culturebox

The End of Pregnancy

And the inevitable rise of the artificial womb.

Doctor Tests Positive for Ebola in New York City

How a Company You’ve Never Heard of Took Control of the Entire Porn Industry

The Hot New Strategy for Desperate Democrats

Blame China for everything.

The Questions That Michael Brown’s Autopsies Can’t Answer

Foreigners

Kiev Used to Be an Easygoing Place

Now it’s descending into madness.

Technology

Don’t Just Sit There

How to be more productive during your commute.

There Has Never Been a Comic Book Character Like John Constantine

Which Came First, the Word Chicken or the Word Egg?

  News & Politics
The Slate Quiz
Oct. 24 2014 12:10 AM Play the Slate News Quiz With Jeopardy! superchampion Ken Jennings.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 23 2014 5:53 PM Amazon Investors Suddenly Bearish on Losing Money
  Life
Outward
Oct. 23 2014 5:08 PM Why Is an Obscure 1968 Documentary in the Opening Credits of Transparent?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 23 2014 11:33 AM Watch Little Princesses Curse for the Feminist Cause
  Slate Plus
Working
Oct. 23 2014 11:28 AM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 2 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked Dr. Meri Kolbrener about her workday.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 23 2014 6:55 PM A Goodfellas Actor Sued The Simpsons for Stealing His Likeness. Does He Have a Case?
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 23 2014 11:47 PM Don’t Just Sit There How to be more productive during your commute.
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 23 2014 5:42 PM Seriously, Evolution: WTF? Why I love the most awkward, absurd, hacked-together species.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.