NASA Revisits Space Shuttle Close Calls

CAPE CANAVERAL - A rocketfuel fire during atmospheric re-entry that ended in explosions on the Edwards Air Force Base runway in 1983.

A launch pad fire with sixastronauts aboard a fully fueled shuttle in 1984.

A brake failure and blowntire during a 1985 landing with a U.S. Senator aboard.

An orbital debris strike in1992 that caused the type of wing damage that doomed Columbia and sevenastronauts in 2003.

Amid the final push toreturn NASA's shuttle fleet to service, senior managers at Johnson Space Center in Houston are taking time to review the harrowing details of a dozen pastshuttle missions that nearly ended in disaster.

"The idea is to justincrease awareness and have everybody on their toes," said Bob Holkan,president of MTS Global Inc., a Houston-based management and technical servicescompany that has been researching and
documenting the close calls.

"You know, there isnot a lot of difference between a close call and an accident."

The look-back is wellwarranted. Seven astronauts are preparing to board Discovery on July 13 for atest flight to the International Space Station, and near-catastrophic problemshave cropped up at least one in 10 shuttle missions to date.

Shuttle managers decided inJanuary to develop a "close call awareness" program "as a way toprovide increased, program-wide focus on attention to detail."

Deputy shuttle programmanager Wayne Hale came up with the idea at a risk conference in California in 2004. Jim Lovell, commander of the Apollo 13 mission, recounted how a chainof seemingly minor events over the course of four or five years led to the fueltank explosion that crippled the spaceship and prompted a now-legendary effortto get the crew home safe.

"I was amazed at thenumber of NASA people in that room that had never heard that part of the story.It was news to them. There is history here that is not getting to the rightpeople," Hale said.

A note to shuttle programworkers was issued to solicit suggested cases, and 12 were selected.

MTS Global was hired inFebruary to research the cases and develop two products: PowerPointpresentations for use at JSC senior staff meetings and associated "whitepapers" that provide further detail.

Former astronaut SteveHawley, who now heads a JSC science directorate, briefed senior staff on the1984 launch pad fire.

With Discovery perched onlaunch pad 39A for its first flight, the main engines ignited and then shut downfour seconds before liftoff when a fuel valve failed.

Explosive liquid hydrogenleaked and ignited, burning for at least 12 minutes as six astronauts scurriedfrom shuttle.

A water spray system on thepad extinguished the fire, but managers never ordered the astronauts, includingHawley, to evacuate gantry. They lacked confidence in the metal baskets thatwould whisk astronauts down a 1,200-foot cable to the ground.

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