The space shuttle Columbia tragedy in 2003 profoundly changed the way NASA handled its space shuttle missions. The space agency ordered that plans for a rescue mission be made for each shuttle flight. Just in case.
Most shuttle missions after Columbia were to the International Space Station. If there was a problem with the shuttle, the crew could hang out on the station until a rescue shuttle could be prepped and launched. But this plan would not have worked in 2009 for the last Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission, code-named STS-125.
Space shuttle Atlantis had to match Hubble’s orbit, which is at a different altitude and tilt from the space station. Despite what we saw in the Sandra Bullock movie "Gravity," this means that had there been a major problem with Atlantis, it would have been impossible for it reach the station. Any rescue shuttle would have to be launched in just a few days, before Atlantis ran out of oxygen. That’s why NASA had space shuttle Endeavour prepped and standing by on the launch pad during most of that Hubble repair mission.
The planning and prep was code-named STS-400. If this mission had been needed, space shuttle Endeavour would have been launched, carrying four astronauts into orbit. Endeavour’s robotic arm would have grabbed the (presumably) crippled orbiter. A series of daring space walks would have transferred all seven Atlantis crew members to Endeavour, which would carry them back to Earth. Afterward, mission control might have attempted to land the damaged Atlantis by remote control, although it probably would have been allowed to burn up over an empty stretch of ocean.
NASA flight director Paul Dye was one of the key figures in this planning. Through our mutual friend, ground control officer Bill Foster, Paul asked me to design an unofficial team emblem for his “space rescue” planning group. I was especially delighted to be asked, since I had already designed the mission patch for STS-125, which the astronauts would be wearing during their flight. Of course, neither Paul nor his team ever wanted to see the STS-400 emblem in actual use, but they needed a graphic for report covers and PowerPoint presentations. Anyway, it turns out that Paul is also a firefighter, so he liked the idea of using the square cross, traditionally associated with disaster relief.
The STS-400 planning was key to space science. Without this team effort, the magnificent Hubble Space Telescope would have suffered an early retirement, because NASA would not have been able to send astronauts to service the orbital observatory.
Whenever I work with the folks at NASA, I’m always impressed with the incredible amount of work, planning and expertise that go into executing a safe, successful space mission. The STS-400 planning effort was yet another example of this dedication.
Story originally posted June 21, 2009. © 2015 Michael and Denise Okuda.
Space shuttle Atlantis on the pad just before the May 2009 launch of STS-125, the final Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission. In the background is space shuttle Endeavour, standing by in case an emergency rescue had been necessary. That rescue mission was code-named STS-400.
The unofficial mission patch for the STS-400 space rescue mission, based on the traditional firefighter’s square cross.
The mission patch for STS-125, worn by the astronauts during the flight of Atlantis.