Space Rescue Technology In Fact And Fiction

NASA is preparing a backup shuttle and rescue crew in case shuttle Discovery has problems in May. Rescue flights have been become more of an issue since shuttle Columbia broke up in reentry two years ago. Space shuttle commander Steve Lindsey states "Our emphasis on return to flight is getting the tank fixed and the tools in place to inspect to make sure that we don't have damage -- and if we do have damage, to hopefully repair it. This [rescue mission] would be a last resort. Hopefully, we will never see this."

Emergency rescue capabilities will be limited to missions to the space station to retrieve stranded astronauts; other scenarios have been studied, but none have been trained for.

Scientists and science fiction athors have been thinking about emergency rescues in space for almost as long as they have thought about voyages in space. In his 1938 novel Triplanetary, E.E. "Doc" Smith wrote about emergency lifeboats:

...the three armored forms darted away toward their only hope of escape - an emergency lifeboat that could be launched through the shell of the great globe.
(Read more about emergency lifeboats)

Smith also wrote about an ablative heat shield in the same book (which was very similar to an actual escape pod concept called an "airmat"). In 1941, author Harry Walton wrote about a rescue ship - he called it a "lifeship" - in Moon of Exile. In 1946, Arthur C. Clarke published his first short story, titled Rescue Party, in which aliens on a survey mission arrived to try to evacuate humanity from Spaceship Earth in the face of the sun going nova:

Alveron read the message from base: then, with a flick of a tentacle that no human eye could have followed, he pressed the General Attention button...

"We are approaching a sun which is about to become a nova. There are ten planets, with a civilization on the third. It is our tragic mission to contact that doomed race, and if possible save some of its members."

The crew rescue vehicle that most movie-goers are familiar with is of course the escape pod in George Lucas' Star Wars. It offered room for several crew members (or droids); R2 programs the pod's course.

"You've led us through half the ship, and to what...?"[Threepio] broke off, staring in disbelief as the squat robot reached up with one clawed limb and snapped the seal on a lifeboat hatch...

Artoo was already working his way into the cramped boat pod. It was just large enough to hold several humans, and its design was not laid out to accommodate mechanicals. Artoo had some trouble negotiating the awkward little compartment.

"Hey," a startled Threepio called, admonishing, "you're not permitted in there..."
(Read more about the Star Wars escape pod)


(Star Wars Episode IV Escape Pod)

Scientists and engineers have, of course, also considered this problem. Werner Von Braun pushed the idea of a manned space station in the 1960's; with it he also designed a protective ejection type capsule. A parachute with steel-wire mesh reinforcements and solid rocket booster would break the fall; antenna and radar beacon activate automatically.


(From Von Braun Rescue Vehicles)

After the 1986 shuttle Challenger accident, NASA started seriously looking at alternatives for the Space Station. Some proposals even included the use of refurbished Apollo lunar capsules from the 1960's. The only completed crew rescue capability ever provided by NASA is the Apollo CSM rescue craft. A kit was created to fit out an Apollo command module with five crew couches; in the event that a Skylab crew ran into trouble, a rescue CSM would be launched to rendezvous with the station.

This capability was created partly in response to the sci-fi movie Marooned, released in 1969, starring Gregory Peck, David Janssen and Gene Hackman (among many others). The movie explored what happens when a problem develops in space and astronauts are stranded.


(From NASA Rescue CSM craft)

During the last decade, NASA developed the X-38 prototype, which was intended as an emergency vehicle for up to seven crewmembers on the International Space Station. It would have been carried up to the ISS by shuttle, and attached to a docking port. The craft offered a seven hour life support system, a steerable parafoil parachute deployed at 40,000 feet to carry it through to landing. It was intended to have fully automated navigation and control systems. This program has been cancelled.


(From NASA X-38)

Read more at NASA readies possible space rescue.

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