In 2003 after the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas, investigators determined that insulation from the solid rocket boosters slammed against the shuttle’s heat tiles during liftoff causing enough damage to destroy the shuttle during re-entry.
You probably remember that. What you don’t remember or even know about is the extraordinary 1988 flight of Space Shuttle Atlantis.
Just three years after the destruction of Space Shuttle Challenger in 1985, Atlantis lifted off with a top-secret satellite payload for the Department of Defense. During liftoff, in an eerie presaging of what would happen to Columbia fifteen years later, insulating foam from the solid rocket boosters slammed into the shuttle’s heat tiles causing massive damage and putting the flight, the crew and indeed the entire shuttle program in jeopardy.
After achieving orbit, astronauts on Atlantis used the shuttle’s robotic arm and a black and white video camera to view and assess the damage.
It was extensive. The underside of the right wing was severely damaged as was most of the right side of the fuselage. Upon seeing this, Veteran Shuttle Commander Robert "Hoot" Gibson thought that he was dead for sure. He was looking at the worst damage any shuttle had ever experienced.
Spaceflightnow.com has a great story about the incident. It turns out that Mission Control and the Atlantis flight were operating under military restrictions that prevented the crew from downlinking clear images showing scores of chipped and broken tiles. This led to Mission Control’s mistaken analysis on the ground that suggested that the crew had nothing to worry about.
Boy were they ever wrong. That no critical failure happened during re-entry was a stroke of pure luck. When the shuttle landed, engineers and Mission Control staffers were absolutely horrified when they inspected it.
The story is a gripping real-life reminder of the dangers and challenges of space flight even as it was becoming routine…if in appearance only.