failure at a NASA launch -- 4/24/15

Today's selection -- from Extreme Medicine by Kevin Fong, M.D. In NASA's space shuttle program, the astronauts made extensive preparations for any type of failure that occurred during the launch:

"The crew could escape a debacle on the launch pad by sliding down a two-hundred-foot-high zip wire, getting from the crew deck to the ground in a few short seconds, crashing into a net, and then bailing into an armored car that they'd been trained to operate. In an emergency, they were told to climb in, drive straight through the perimeter fence, and keep going in the hope that they might outrun the fireball and blast that would accompany the simultaneous detonation of a few hundred thousand liters of rocket fuel. ...

"The shuttle could abort after takeoff during its ascent. Redundancy was the name of the game here. After a few minutes of flight, the mission could tolerate the failure of one of the three shuttle main engines and still get into space, albeit at a lower than intended orbit.

"Losing an engine early, before momentum had had time to build, or losing more than one engine, would be a different matter. Unable to develop the altitude or velocity required to achieve low Earth orbit, the shuttle could perform a transatlantic abort, a maneuver in which it would ditch its external tank and solid rocket boosters and vault across the Atlantic Ocean, landing somewhere in Europe.

"That journey across the Atlantic Ocean of more than four thousand miles, which a commercial airliner would take perhaps eight hours to cover, would be completed by an aborting shuttle in less than thirty minutes.

"There was another, even more outlandish scenario called the return to landing site (RTLS). Here, having lost an engine early in the launch, unable to make it to space, but still strapped to its external tank and two solid rockets, the shuttle could -- in theory -- be flipped over and flown back to Kennedy Space Center. During this abort, the solid rocket boosters would be jettisoned after two minutes. Then, still strapped to the external tank and at this point heading toward Europe at several thousand miles an hour, the shuttle would ascend and use its maneuvering thrusters to flip itself over, rotating through 180 degrees like a pancake, with its remaining main engines still burning.

"Having performed the equivalent of a supersonic handbrake turn, the shuttle's momentum would continue to carry it toward Europe.

"Flying backward with its nose pointing roughly toward the United Sates, the engines would be facing the direction of travel, thus slowing the shuttle down. At some point, the rocket motors still firing and the external tank still attached, the shuttle's progress toward Europe would be arrested. Momentarily it would come to a standstill before accelerating once again, this time back toward the States. The crew would then dump their external tank and attempt to glide unpowered back to he site from which they'd launched some twenty-five minutes earlier."



Kevin Fong M.D.


Extreme Medicine: How Exploration Transformed Medicine in the Twentieth Century


The Penguin Press HC


Copyright 2012 by Kevin Fong, M.D.


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