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March 29, 2009

1988 Shuttle Mission Came Within Seconds of Disaster. [dri]

Shuttle mission STS-27 in December of 1988 began oddly and nearly ended in total disaster. The military mission to carry the first Lacrosse radar imaging satellite into orbit was at the time considered so top secret that during a pre flight press briefing the Atlantis crew members wore black face masks to conceal their identities. Such tongue in cheek melodrama would soon give way to real drama when more than 700 heat shield tiles became damaged during liftoff.

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"I will never forget, we hung the (robot) arm over the right wing, we panned it to the (damage) location and took a look and I said to myself, 'we are going to die,'" -shuttle commander Robert "Hoot" Gibson.

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Crewman Mike Mullane devoted a chapter to the mission in his book "Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut" in it he noted:

"As I moved the arm lower the camera picked up streaks of white," he wrote in "Riding Rockets." "There was no mistaking what they were. ... As I continued to drop the arm lower we could see that at least one tile had been completely blasted from the fuselage. The white streaking grew thicker and faded aft beyond the view of the camera. It appeared that hundreds of tiles had been damaged and the scars extended outboard toward the carbon-composite panels on the leading edge of the wing. Had one of those been penetrated? If so, we were dead men floating."


The worst part of the whole ordeal was the reaction the shuttle crew received from Mission Control in Houston. After viewing encrypted video of the damage, engineers at NASA concluded that the risk of reentry was minimal.

"I'm just perplexed at this point," Gibson said. "Because I'd never seen anything like this before. Never seen anything even close, and I'd been there since before day one. ... He came back and he said 'Hoot, they've looked at it and they've determined that it's not any worse than what we've seen on other flights.' And I am just perplexed. I think I was silent for maybe 30 seconds, because I didn't know what to say. And I came back and I said something to the effect that well, all right. It looks pretty bad to us, but you guys are the experts, so OK.


Luckily for the flight crew of STS-27, the shuttle did survive reentry. Engineers on the ground were shocked to see how extensive the damage had been. 700 heat shield tiles were damaged, some exposing bare metal. The aluminum skin of the shuttle had melted in several locations and a Columbia type burn through was barely averted.

An investigation of the near disaster revealed that because of the top secret nature of the mission, poor quality encrypted video was used to display the damage to NASA engineers. That coupled with the flight crew's hesitancy to question NASA's conclusions and press their concerns regarding the damage were key areas that led to a communication breakdown.

The real issue for Gibson - and the same issue was faced by Columbia's crew - was that no one took the extra step to make sure the problem was fully resolved.
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posted by xgenghisx at 11:28 AM

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