NASA report on Columbia shuttle disaster finds crew had no chance for survival

December 30, 2008

WASHINGTON (ChattahBox) — A new NASA report released Tuesday details the chaotic final minutes of Columbia, which disintegrated over Texas on Feb. 1, 2003. NASA held the report till after Christmas at the request of the families. The point of the 400-page analysis is to figure out how to make NASA’s next spaceship more survivable. The report targeted problems with the spacesuits, restraints and helmets of the Columbia crew. However some question the need for the report, believing the specifics of how the astronauts died should be a private matter.

The new report paints a more detailed picture of the final moments of the Columbia crew than the broader investigation into the accident five years ago. As Columbia re-entered Earth’s atmosphere with a hole in its left wing, due to damage that had occurred at liftoff the shuttle was already starting to crack up. The hole in its wing was caused by a piece of foam insulation that broke off the fuel tank and slammed into it at launch. When the first of many loud alarms sounded on Columbia during reentry, the seven astronauts had less then a minute to live. By then the crew had lost control of the motion and direction of the spacecraft and it was pitching end-over-end, as the cabin lights were out, and parts of the shuttle behind the crew compartment — including its wings — were falling off. The pilot, William McCool, pushed several buttons trying to right the ship as it tumbled out of control, but it was futile with the damage that had gone unnoticed.

The report lists events that were each potentially lethal to the crew: Loss of cabin pressure just before or as the cabin broke up; crew members, unconscious or already dead, crashing into objects in the module; exposure to a near vacuum at 100,000 feet; and crashing to the ground. Killed in the Columbia disaster along with pilot McCool, were commander Rick Husband, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, and Israel’s first astronaut, Ilan Ramon. The NASA study team is recommending 30 changes based on Columbia, many of them targeted at upgrading the spacesuits, helmets and seatbelts for both the shuttle and the next space capsule NASA is building. Since the accident, NASA has quietly made astronauts put more priority on getting their protective suits on. Also NASA’s suits don’t automatically pressurize, a basic problem of suit design and one they intend to fix with future space flights.

In Columbia’s case though even if the astronauts had time to get their gear on and get their suits pressurized, they might have lived longer and been able to take more actions, but they still wouldn’t have survived, the report notes. Many take comfort that the doomed astronauts likely didn’t suffer for very long having a maximum of 41 seconds after the alarms wents off before losing concousness. Some of the recommendations in the report are already are being applied to the next-generation spaceship being designed to take astronauts to the moon and Mars.


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