I was reading a article in Ars Technica about the Columbia disaster, back in 2003, written by Lee Hutchinson, who was doing some support work for NASA back then. He talks about the possibility of a rescue mission using the Atlantis (already undergoing mission prep). An emergency spacewalk to make repairs was also possible. The NASA honchos decided that even if there was damage (caused by a chunk of foam breaking off the external tank during launch and hitting the wing) nothing could be done, so decided not to check for damage (which could have been done with an EVA, or sophisticated ground-based imaging systems, or recon sats).
I remember this all pretty well: I’d still welcome the chance to strangle the key NASA players. I remember how they forbade lower-level people at NASA to talk to the Air Force and ask for recon assets – how they peddled ass-covering bullshit about how nothing could possibly have been done. A lie.
One of the dogs that didn’t bark was the fact that NASA acted as if relevant DOD assets did not exist. For example, if you could have put a package into a matching low orbit with those consumables in shortest supply, say CO2 absorbers and/or cheeseburgers, there would would have been considerably more time available to assemble a rescue mission. For some forgotten reason the Air Force has hundreds of missiles (Minuteman-IIIs) that can be launched on a moment’s notice – it wouldn’t be that hard to replace a warhead with a consumables package. A moment’s thought tells you that some such capability is likely to exist – one intended to rapidly replaced destroyed recon sats, for example. Certainly worth considering, worth checking, before giving up on the crew. Just as the Air Force has recon assets that could have been most helpful in diagnosing the state of the ship – but NASA would rather die than expose itself to Air Force cooties. Not that the Air Force doesn’t have cooties, but NASA has quite a few of its own already.
If we ever had a real reason for manned space travel – I can imagine some – the first thing you’d need to do is kill everyone in the NASA manned space program. JPL you could keep.