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"I will never forget, we hung the (robot) arm over the right wing, we panned it to the (damage) location and took a look and I said to myself, 'we are going to die,'" recalled legendary shuttle commander Robert "Hoot" Gibson. "There was so much damage. I looked at that stuff and I said, 'oh, holy smokes, this looks horrible, this looks awful.'"

He was seeing the worst tile damage any shuttle had ever experienced.

But a blacked-out military flight 21 years ago still stands out as a warning to astronauts, engineers and managers, a frightening "close call" that had the potential to bring the shuttle program to an early end."

"Gibson, a former Navy test pilot, "Top Gun" graduate, chief astronaut and veteran of five shuttle missions, was at the controls when the shuttle Atlantis blasted off Dec. 2, 1988, on the second post-Challenger mission. Carrying a top-secret spy satellite, the mission was fully classified and all communications with the astronauts were blacked out.

Atlantis was launched on Dec. 2, 1988. Credit: NASA

But 85 seconds after launch, a piece of insulation on the tip of the shuttle's right-side solid-fuel booster broke away and struck Atlantis' right side. The impact was not noted on NASA television at the time and after landing, NASA engineers said that while the shuttle had suffered more tile damage than usual, "it isn't something that's of a major concern."

But as it turned out, the damage was, in fact, extensive. More than 700 heat shield tiles were damaged. One tile on the shuttle's belly near the nose was completely missing and the underlying metal - a thick mounting plate that helped anchor an antenna - was partially melted. In a slightly different location, the missing tile could have resulted in a catastrophic burn through.

It was the most extensive shuttle heat shield damage ever recorded until Columbia took off on its final voyage."

"During debriefing after the mission, Gibson finally learned why the engineering community had not taken the crew's descriptions of the damage more seriously.

"Their conclusion, which they did not pass back to us, was 'oh, you know what? That's not tile damage, those are just lights and shadows we're seeing in this video.' So in other words, the resolution on the encrypted video was that bad that they based a conclusion on it that was in gross error. ... If I had said hey, I think this is important enough for us to break the encryption and send you guys clear video, oh, it would have been pandemonium down there at DOD. But in hindsight, oh man, that's what we should have done. Because they were drawing an incorrect conclusion from it and they were not telling us what their conclusion was."
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