Kobayashi Maru, a.k.a. the Loss of Space Shuttle Cooling

Marianne Dyson, June 2017

As a young flight controller, I was assigned to write the crew procedures for what to do if the space shuttle’s cooling system failed. A total loss of cooling was considered a “basket case,” as in the expression, “going to hell in a handbasket” because the space shuttle required electricity to land safely. The fuel cells that provided electricity would overheat and fail within 10 minutes without active cooling by the shuttle’s two Freon loops.

In a cartoon included with a review of my memoir, A Passion for Space, artist Dale DeBakscy aptly compares the loss of two Freon loops case with a famous Star Trek no-win training exercise named after a ship, the Kobayashi Maru, that can’t be rescued without causing the rescuers to be destroyed by the Klingons. The exercise is supposed to reveal a cadet’s decision-making process. Cadet Kirk is the first to beat the simulation, but he does it by cheating: reprogramming the Klingon ships so they lose their protective shields. [See Kobayashi Maru scenario.]

Cartoon created by Dale DeBakscy for Scheduling for Success, Preparing for Disaster. WomenYouShouldKnow, May 31, 2017. Used with permission.

Back in the real world, the Loss of 2 Freon Loops certainly provided a good training experience in real-time decision-making for flight controllers. Our top priority, similar to the rescue of the Kobayashi Maru, was to bring the crew home safely.

The first time the training team threw this failure at the STS-1 Ascent Team, we crashed and burned. It was a humbling experience that led to much discussion of actions that offered a better outcome.

Time was our equivalent to the Klingon war birds. We had to work fast or be destroyed.

An analysis indicated we could use a maintenance procedure called a purge, designed to clear contaminant buildup, to help remove heat from the fuel cells. This bought us 30 to 60 minutes if we could get the power load down to 8 kW within 10 minutes.

My fellow flight controller Carolynn Conley created a power down list, and I redid the entry procedures assuming all that equipment was turned off. We then ran a simulation with the STS-1 crew, John Young and Robert Crippen. We crashed. Three times. We needed a faster way to get the power level down. The crew suggested we use pictures of the cockpit panels showing the switches to be turned off rather than listing them in a checklist. This saved a lot of time. Also, we discovered that if we put the switches into the right position for launch, the ground could send commands to start the fuel cell purge and help shut things down. The crew didn’t have to get out of their seats, a real chore during ascent.

John Young and Robert Crippen

John Young and Robert Crippen in the simulator in 1980. The displays are black, meaning the simulator has crashed. Bob says, “Well, John, it’s the ole Loss of 2 Freon Loops.” (NASA photo)

But we still crashed. So just like Kirk, we had to cheat! We programmed one of the temperature values to stay low (like the analysis said it would) so we’d have power long enough to verify it really was the temperature that was causing the crashes and not something wrong with the procedures. Imagine how awful it would have been if Kirk had used his trick to dispatch the Klingons and then run out of fuel before he could rescue the Kobayashi Maru!

We didn’t uncover any issues with our plans. We put them in a checklist onboard for STS-1, and they stayed part of the flight data file all the way through STS-135.

Could a crew have survived the Loss of 2 Freon Loops, or was it as hopeless as rescuing the Kobayashi Maru? You can read my answer in a science fiction story called “Fireworks in Orbit.” It was published in Analog in 1990 and is included in my collection Fly Me to the Moon (see below for special offer!). Was there a way to beat the Kobayashi sim without cheating? I have no doubt a team of flight controllers could do it. After all, failure is not an option!

Writing about Space

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Autographed copies of my shuttle memoir, A Passion for Space, are available for $32 plus tax and shipping.

Speaking about Space

I’d love to share my space stories with you! Invite me to speak to your school/university, conference, or library. I’m offering a 20 percent discount for any author visits to Houston area schools or events scheduled in October (international Space Week is October 4-10). I offer short programs and STEM workshops for adults, kids, and mixed audiences. For programs and prices, visit: Dyson Author Visits.