CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – NASA (search) could have launched another shuttle to rescue the Columbia (search) astronauts if it had realized the severity of the wing damage early on and decided it was worth the extreme risk to the second ship and crew, the chief accident investigator said.
Retired Navy Adm. Harold Gehman Jr., chairman of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (search), said Friday that the question was put to NASA earlier this month and that the space agency's preliminary findings indicate that such a rescue would have been technically feasible.
But he added: "I've got no idea if it would have been successful or not."
Gehman stressed that a rushed rescue mission by shuttle Atlantis (search) and four of NASA's best and most seasoned astronauts would have been "very, very risky - but not impossible."
He said astronauts would have been "standing out in the hallways to volunteer."
In the days after the Feb. 1 tragedy, NASA managers insisted nothing could have been done to fix Columbia's wing and save its seven astronauts.
Earlier this week, however, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe (search) said he would have strongly considered sending Atlantis to the astronauts' rescue, even if it meant losing another shuttle and crew.
The investigation board asked NASA at the beginning of May to determine what emergency steps could have been taken if the space agency had known that a flying chunk of foam insulation had created a fatal breach in the ship's left wing during liftoff. NASA briefed the board on its findings Thursday.
Gehman acknowledged it would have been chancy to launch a shuttle on a rescue mission without first fixing the problem of foam breaking off.
But he pointed out that in the military, "we frequently launch 120 people to go save one."
"If you've got a pilot down behind enemy lines, we do everything and anything possible to go get that person," he said in a telephone conference with reporters. "It's kind of a contract we have with the people who go into harm's way.
"NASA and the nation have that same contract with astronauts, and it is my opinion, and from my personal background, that if there had been any erring, we would have erred on the side of taking the chance and going after them."
With drastic conservation measures, Columbia's 16-day flight could have been stretched to 30 days to give NASA time to mount the rescue mission, Gehman said.
Because Atlantis was about to be moved to the launch pad for a March 1 launch, it could have been ready to fly as early as Feb. 11 or 12, three or four days before Columbia's air purifiers would have run out, Gehman said.
Atlantis could have arrived at Columbia within 24 hours and flown in formation, 50 to 90 feet apart, with the open payload bays facing one another. Atlantis' astronauts then would have escorted their colleagues from Columbia in a series of four spacewalks, bringing them over mostly two at a time, Gehman said. Extra spacesuits would have been taken up by Atlantis.
As for Columbia, the abandoned ship ultimately would have been guided by remote control into the ocean.
The only other option would have been to try to repair the damaged wing in a spacewalk by Columbia's astronauts, perhaps by stuffing the hole with a bag of water, which would have frozen, and then covering it with Teflon tape, and hope for the best, Gehman said. But he said NASA has yet to determine if such a patch would have held during the fiery re-entry.
"It kind of comes under the category of, at least we would have done something," he said.
During the shuttle's re-entry, scorching gases entered the hole in the wing and caused the shuttle to break apart over Texas.
While Columbia was still in orbit, NASA engineers concluded that the foam had not caused any serious damage. In fact, the space agency decided not to request any special military photography of the shuttle in orbit to examine the potential damage.
The possibility that a rescue mission could have been mounted changes some of the decision-making done back then "from being kind of a bureaucratic, administrative fumbling-bumbling to a much more serious life-and-death kind of a decision process," Gehman said.
"Now those kinds of benign administrative decisions which were taken now look more ominous, because now it looks like maybe there was something you could do," he said.