The Columbia Rescue Mission That Could Have Been

For a brief period, NASA considered rushing *Atlantis *to readiness, and launching it upwards to dock with and rescue the *Columbia *crew.

Imagine an alternate timeline for the Columbia mission in which NASA quickly realized just how devastating the foam strike had been. Could the Columbiaastronauts have been safely retrieved from orbit?

NASA planners did have one fortuitous ace in the hole that made the plan possible: while Columbia's STS-107 mission was in progress, Atlantis was already undergoing preparation for flight as STS-114, scheduled for launch on March 1. As Columbia thundered into orbit, the younger shuttle was staged in Orbital Processing Facility 1 (OPF-1) at the Kennedy Space Center. Its three main engines had already been installed, but it didn't yet have a payload or remote manipulator arm in its cargo bay. Two more weeks of refurbishment and prep work remained before it would be wheeled across the space center to the enormous Vehicle Assembly Building and hoisted up for attachment to an external tank and a pair of solid rocket boosters.

Endeavour undergoes processing at OPF-2. Atlantis was in a similar state while Columbia was flying its final mission.
So an in-orbit rescue was at least feasible—but making a shuttle ready to fly is an incredibly complicated procedure involving millions of discrete steps. In order to pull Atlantis' launch forward, mission planners had to determine which steps if any in the procedure could be safely skipped without endangering the rescue crew.

Read the full article on Ars Technica – it's a gripping picture of what might have been NASA's finest hour.