If the rare event that something goes wrong on a space shuttle mission, NASA is ready with a rescue plan that would undoubtedly make many Hollywood directors and tough boy actors piss their pants.
Picture this, if you will...
The main shuttle mission, Atlantis, experiences another foam incident, and the heat shield is damaged beyond repair. Upon acknowledgment of the problem, NASA scrambles a four-person astronaut rescue team, which must prepare for launch in the span of a few days. Normally, as you know, launches are complex affairs that require months of preparation. But no bother. The Endeavour lifts off successfully and the rescue team screams into space. In fact, Endeavour is put on a T-Minus seven day liftoff count once the Atlantis launches anyway, so it's technically ready to go from minute one.
Once in orbit, the rescue team shuttle captain must pilot his craft to within a few dozen yards or the ailing shuttle. Once there, the robot arm is sent out to grasp the gimped shuttle, thereby serving as a life line for the crew. On board the rescue craft are extra spacesuits and gear, so that the entire seven-person Atlantis crew can spacewalk to Endeavour over the course of a few days.
Endeavour, now packed to the gills, must then return home. As for Atlantis, she will be given a proper scuttling by a crew back at mission control. Using a remote control system, they will ditch the shuttle in the Pacific, and try to recover its debris later.
The Endeavour crew must then check their ship for damage, and hope beyond hope that there isn't any. There's no other shuttle on the pad, you see, and the ISS is at an orbit that will be unreachable for either shuttle during this mission (Note: Other missions have had the ISS as a backup plan due to shared orbits and other such details).
Again, this is rare. But it's comforting to note our spacemen and women have each other's backs up there. [MSNBC]