This rescue was considered challenging but feasible.

Ars Technica: The audacious rescue plan that might have saved space shuttle Columbia. The untold story of the rescue mission that could have been NASA’s finest hour. By Lee Hutchinson.

“At 10:39 Eastern Standard Time on January 16, 2003, space shuttle Columbia lifted off from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. A mere 81.7 seconds later, a chunk of insulating foam tore free from the orange external tank and smashed into the leading edge of the orbiter’s left wing at a relative velocity of at least 400 miles per hour (640 kph), but Columbia continued to climb toward orbit. […]
Sixteen days later, as Columbia re-entered the atmosphere, superheated plasma entered the orbiter’s structure through the hole in the wing and the shuttle began to disintegrate. […]
That’s the way events actually unfolded. But imagine an alternate timeline for the Columbia mission in which NASA quickly realized just how devastating the foam strike had been. Could the Columbia astronauts have been safely retrieved from orbit?”

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