An exhaustive report on what happened in the crew cabin during the final moments before the space shuttle Columbia broke up over Texas in 2003 found numerous equipment flaws that failed to protect the astronauts from the extreme conditions they were abruptly exposed to during the disaster. But in somber tones, NASA's report
also acknowledged that "the breakup of the crew module ... was not survivable by any currently existing capability" [CNN].
The mission was doomed when a chunk of foam broke away from an external fuel tank and struck the shuttle's left wing during its launch; 15 days later, during reentry to the Earth's atmosphere, superheated gases poured into the hole created and melted the shuttle's structure.
From the crew's perspective, the shift from what appeared to be a normal descent on 1 February 2003, into disaster happened so fast that the astronauts didn't even have time to close the visors on their helmets.... The crew cabin broke away from the ship and started spinning rapidly. Analysis of the wreckage indicated the crew members had flipped cockpit switches in response to alarms that were sounding. The astronauts had also reset the shuttle's autopilot system, the report said [New Scientist].
The report details numerous problems with the astronauts' equipment, starting with their pressurized suits. Because of a design flaw, the astronauts couldn't keep their helmet visors down during reentry without causing dangerously high oxygen levels in the cabin, and the bulky gloves made it impossible to perform many tasks. So when the cabin abruptly depressurized, all of the astronauts had their visors up, and several had their gloves off.
One comforting conclusion in the 400-page report is that, after the first few seconds, the astronauts were probably unconscious and never knew what was happening. "On behalf of their colleagues and families, I can say that we are relieved that we discovered this," astronaut Pamela Melroy, deputy project manager for the investigative team, said [Los Angeles Times].
The shuttle went into a flat spin as it descended, flinging the astronauts sideways against their restraints. But
the astronauts were protected only by lap belts. The upper-body belts did not hold them in place because the inertial locks, such as those on car seat belts, were not designed for such sideways motion [Los Angeles Times].
Making the situation still worse, the astronauts' helmets didn't conform to their heads, and as the crew members were flung around the helmets battered their skulls. Through some combination of oxygen deprivation and blunt trauma, the report says, all the astronauts were dead before the shuttle finished disintegrating. The report offers recommendations for design improvements to future crew capsules and to the astronauts' suits.
N. Wayne Hale, Jr., a former head of the shuttle program, said, “I call on spacecraft designers from all the other nations of the world, as well as the commercial and personal spacecraft designers here at home, to read this report and apply these lessons which have been paid for so dearly” [The New York Times].
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