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The Columbia Accident Investigation Commission found that those responsible had failed to develop an emergency plan to avoid an emergency during re-entry. The Space Shuttle leadership seemed to believe that nothing could be done in an emergency, and a rescue mission that could have saved the Columbia crew or repaired the wing was not seriously considered.

The CAIB asked NASA to theoretically think through rescue and repair missions, and they envisioned two scenarios. NASA backed up the missions with the following narrative: On day one, a debris impact was detected. The next day, mission controllers would request images from the Columbia crew. If the images were inconclusive, on day four, NASA would ask the crew to conduct a spacewalk to inspect the damage. If the spacewalk revealed potentially catastrophic damage, the crew would prepare and ration supplies. From day six to day 26, the shuttle program would work around the clock to mobilize, launch, and execute the mission.

NASA considered the repair mission “high risk” because the repair was difficult – a spacewalk with heavy components – and there was no guarantee the orbiter could be salvaged on reentry. A rescue mission had a better chance of success, although it was not without serious challenges. In any case, those eventualities would have been better than what happened on February 1.

In its recommendations, the CAIB proposed a new agency-wide training program to develop contingency plans for emergencies involving the loss of crew and shuttles.