Soviet scenario for NASA Shuttle salvage

by Chris Bergin

NASA engineers have been looking into the very real possibility of programming the Shuttles to return from orbit and land unmanned, independently from their crew. This would allow the astronauts to take refuge on the International Space Station in the event of problems, to avoid any future disasters upon the Orbiter’s return to Earth.

This option is being researched since the loss of Columbia and her crew in 2003 and serves as another precautionary step towards ensuring a safer space flight.
In the past, one such unmanned return to Earth was successfully accomplished by a competitor Shuttle from the Soviet Union.  The Russian Space Shuttle Buran made the unmanned flight in November 1988 and returned to a runway landing back in Russia.  The Shuttle was controlled only by computors.
The NASA Shuttles already have a system that can automatically perform most landing functions.  At present however, some key tasks – such as lowering the landing gear and deploying a pair of probes that collect airspeed, altitude and temperature data during the last moments of flight – require an astronaut at the controls.
“All of those things in a theoretical sense can be automated, but they are not currently connected to the computer system,” said Wayne Hale, deputy director of the shuttle program on linking up elements such as deploying the landing gear.
Each Shuttle has automated systems, where computers debate and vote between themselves to decide the right course of action. However, this is mainly used on launches.
NASA’s potential changes would allow the flight team on the ground to land an unmanned Orbiter by remote command.
Hale added “When we designed the Shuttle years ago, they [the elements] weren’t [connected] for a variety of reasons.” Hale then went on to state, “The modifications to allow that capability to be automated are going to take some time.”
If that capability becomes a reality, it could give NASA an alternative to scuttling a damaged orbiter and allowing them to save themselves. Plans developed after the 2003 Columbia accident raise the possibility that future shuttle crews might seek safe haven at the space station if there is evidence their ship needs repairs, rather than risk the fiery plunge home through Earth’s atmosphere.

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