NASA releases more details of Columbia shuttle disaster

Wednesday, December 31, 2008
NASA
Space shuttle Columbia crew members are seen in their group photo, left to right, front row, Rick Husband, Kalpana Chawla, William McCool, back row, David Brown, Laurel Clark, Michael Anderson and Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon. Columbia was destroyed Feb. 1, 2003, on its return to Earth.

WASHINGTON -- Seat restraints, pressure suits and helmets of the doomed crew of the space shuttle Columbia didn't work well, leading to "lethal trauma" as the out-of-control ship lost pressure and broke apart, killing all seven astronauts, a new NASA report says.

At least one crew member was alive and pushing buttons for half a minute after a first loud alarm sounded, as he or she tried to right Columbia during the disaster Feb. 1, 2003.

By that time, there was nothing anyone could have done to survive as the fatally damaged shuttle streaked across Texas to a landing in Florida that would never take place.

NASA scrutinized the final minutes of the shuttle crash in a 400-page report released Tuesday. The agency hopes to help engineers design a new shuttle replacement capsule more capable of surviving an accident. An internal NASA team recommends 30 changes based on Columbia, many of them aimed at pressurization suits, helmets and seat belts.

As was already known, the astronauts died either from lack of oxygen during depressurization or from hitting something as the spacecraft spun out of control. The report said it wasn't clear which of those events killed them.

And in the case of the helmets and other gear, three crew members weren't wearing gloves, which provide crucial protection from depressurization. One wasn't in the seat, one wasn't wearing a helmet and several were not fully strapped in. The gloves were off because they are too bulky to do certain tasks and there is too little time to prepare for re-entry, the report notes.

Had all those procedures been followed, the astronauts might have lived longer and been able to take more actions, but they still wouldn't have survived, the report says.

The new report comes five years after an independent investigation panel issued its own exhaustive analysis on Columbia, but it focused heavily on the cause of the accident and the culture of NASA.

The new document lists five 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; being thrown from their seats and the module; exposure to a near vacuum at 100,000 feet; and hitting the ground.

Columbia disintegrated as it returned to Earth at the end of its space mission. The accident was caused by a hole in the shuttle's left wing from a piece of foam insulation that smashed into it at launch. The breach in the wing brought it down upon its return to Earth.

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