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Review: Launch On Need

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Launch On Need: the Quest to Save Columbia’s Crew
by Daniel Guiteras
T-Cell Books, 2010
softcover, 368 pp.
ISBN 978-0-615-37221-1

One of the lessons of the Columbia accident, eight years ago tomorrow, was that NASA had failed to appreciate the dangers of foam falling off the external tank and striking the orbiter. That is an issue that the agency is now hypersensitive to, with rigorous processes in place to examine launch video for any possible impacts, surveys of the shuttle’s tiles and leading edge panels in orbit, and testing of techniques to fix damage. A lesser-known finding of the investigation was that, had shuttle managers had understood the extent of damage to Columbia early on in the mission, it would have been possible—barely—to mount a shuttle mission to rescue the crew.

Had that been the case, the development of that rescue mission might have looked a lot like what Daniel Guiteras writes in his novel Launch On Need. In this alternative history, shuttle managers do quickly understand the extent of the damage to Columbia through analysis of films of the launch and am EVA by two members of the shuttle’s crew. Once it’s clear that Columbia is too badly damaged to return safely, Atlantis is hurriedly prepared for a mission to rendezvous with Columbia and retrieve its crew before Columbia’s life support systems fail.

Guiteras has clearly done his research on how such a mission would take place; at times, though, those details seem to get in the way of the flow of the narrative.

Launch On Need might be best described not as an alternative history novel, but one that takes place in an alternate universe: the characters are all fictional, with no obvious attempt to link them to actual individuals as in a roman à clef. (Guiteras noted in the book’s introduction that, out of respect to the families of the STS-107 crew, he does not use their actual names in the book; instead, he uses generic designations like “commander” and “pilot” or, in one segment, fictional first names.) However, the book is based on actual analysis of the viability of a rescue mission, in particular a NASA study included in the appendices of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board’s final report that concluded that it was possible to perform such a mission, although it would have been risky and with little margin of error.

That level of detail is, arguably, also one of the novel’s weaknesses. Guiteras has clearly done his research on how such a mission would take place and is eager to share that information with the reader. As a result, there’s a lot of technical detail in the novel that, at times, seems to get in the way of the flow of the narrative. A conduit for a lot of that information is one of the novel’s main characters, a journalist who, improbably, is both a Miles O’Brien-like commentator for CNN and a reporter for the New York Times. Few of the characters seem particularly fleshed out, serving instead as vessels for discussing often arcane bits of information about the shuttle program and how it would carry out a rescue mission.

Since the Columbia accident, it’s been NASA policy to be ready to carry out a “launch on need” rescue mission should an orbiter be too damaged to safely land. (An exception will be the final shuttle mission, STS-135, authorized by Congress in legislation last year, since it uses the shuttle hardware that had been held in reserve for a rescue mission for the preceding mission, STS-134. Should that mission suffer damage, the crew would remain on the International Space Station until they can be returned to Earth on Soyuz missions.) That lesson was learned too late to save Columbia’s crew, but the novel Launch On Need offers a glimpse of what might have been possible, and what hopefully won’t be required as the shuttle approaches requirement.