Geek Trivia: Flying by the (ejection) seat of your pants

Which of the few remaining space shuttle missions has a profile so unusual that it has forced NASA to go back to the future and create a pre-International Space Station era rescue plan -- STS-400 -- in the event that the orbiter becomes damaged while in space?

How can eight feet of data cable potentially save the U.S. government about $2 billion? Well, when that data cable actually allows NASA to remotely pilot a damaged space shuttle down from orbit -- rather than just letting it burn up on reentry -- you wonder how the space agency went 25 years without including this particular piece of equipment on all space shuttle flights.

From the first Space Transportation System mission (STS-1) launch on April 12, 1981 to STS-114's launch on July 26, 2005, this contingency system wasn't in place. The cable connects the manual flight controls to a mid-deck system that lets ground controllers pilot the shuttle remotely. This jerry-rig is necessary because the space shuttle's design has never allowed for unmanned recovery from orbit.

To be fair, space shuttle Discovery's STS-114 flight was the first shuttle mission following the Feb. 1, 2003 loss of the shuttle Columbia. In addition, it was the only one since the Columbia disaster not to include the remote control cable.

It was the loss of Columbia that compelled NASA to rethink its orbital emergency procedures. While the space agency has always had a number of so-called abort modes for dealing with problems during shuttle launch and landing, problems during the actual orbital portion of the mission -- such as damage to the shuttle that would preclude safe reentry -- have become a greater focus since heat shield failure claimed the lives of Columbia's final crew.

That's where the STS-300 series comes in. The Space Transportation System mission 300 series is the group of missions that happen if and when a space shuttle becomes disabled in orbit and can't risk manned reentry.

In those cases, the crew goes from the damaged orbiter to the International Space Station, and an emergency launch of another shuttle occurs in about 40 days. (The ISS has enough oxygen and supplies to handle its crew plus shuttle refugees for about 80 days.)

Every mission following the Columbia loss has had an STS-300 parallel mission planned and prepared in tandem, though all of them have the same basic "wait it out on the ISS" profile. One of the space shuttle program's final missions, however, is not STS-300-compatible, calling for the creation of the unique STS-400 mission, which harkens back to the seat-of-your-pants rescue plans in place before the ISS was in orbit.


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By Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...