Almost a Disaster
The days after the Challenger accident in 1986 were terrible. All of NASA and its contractors were put to work to find and fix the cause of the tragedy. When the corrective actions were taken and the country was ready, NASA prepared for its new missions. Little did anyone know that danger awaited one of the next flight crews.
In an effort to keep Mission Control personnel and Astronaut crews well trained, two “practice” flights were designed – one military and one civilian. For the Astronaut Office, four crews were put together. They were not formally assigned to the early flights but there was a good chance they would be. Mission Control teams worked along with the flight crews.
For the military flights the crews would be all military. It was also specified that the Commander for each of these flights have commanded a flight previously. There would be Air Force and Navy Commanders. Serendipity played a role in the Navy selection. My husband, Hoot Gibson, who had flown the last flight before Challenger, was the only Navy Commander available for assignment so he was named the Commander of STS-27, the second flight after the Challenger accident.
The flight launched on December 2, 1988. All seemed to go well and Atlantis settled into orbit. However, Mission Control told the crew that the cameras around the launch pad had seen some debris fall from the right booster rocket during launch and asked them to use the robot arm to inspect the underside of the Orbiter.
What the crew saw with the onboard cameras was frightening – many tiles appeared to have been damaged, their black coating chipped away so that the white inside of the tiles was showing. When they reported this to Mission Control over their secret communications link, they were asked to downlink pictures. The crew was told, “That’s not a problem and is no worse than other missions”. Hoot said, “Well, I’ve been here since before STS-1 and I’ve never seen anything like this before.” Then he chose not to argue. As it turned out, the pictures sent to the ground were too grainy for Mission Control to see the actual damage.
During the reentry heating phase four days later, when it is like flying into a blow torch, Hoot watched the instruments in the cockpit carefully to discern any indication of difficulty. He even had a plan to manually fly the Orbiter to minimize the heat on the damaged area, if necessary and if they went out of control to use the last seconds of radio contact to report what happened. After landing the extent of the damage became apparent.
Over 700 tiles showed significant damage. In one area, a tile was completely missing. Only one thing had saved the Orbiter and the crew. There was an underlying steel plate that kept the heat from breaching the wing.
Without the steel plate, that area of the wing would have burned through causing the Atlantis to break into pieces over the northern Pacific Ocean and the cause of the accident would never have been found. Coming so soon after Challenger, no doubt it would have ended the Shuttle program.
Someone in Heaven was watching over that flight.
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