How the Columbia crew’s lives were lost January 2, 2009Posted by Sarah in science.
Tags: columbia, nasa, politics, shuttle, space
A new report from NASA has chronicled in great detail the final moments in the lives of the crew on board space shuttle Columbia, which was lost on re-entry, in February 2003. The plain conclusion of the Columbia Crew Survival Investigation Report is that the accident could not have been survived by the crew, who did everything they were trained to do to avoid disaster.
Back in 2001, I wrote a feature article on the accident with space shuttle Challenger as coursework for a science journalism course I was taking as an undergraduate. That year marked the 15-year anniversary of the loss of Challenger, which was caused by a technical failure in the spacecraft solid rocket boosters and, indirectly, by poor internal communication and risk management within NASA and some of its contractors in the face of budget and timeline pressures. Fifteen years on, I found much evidence that not enough had changed at NASA to prevent further accidents.
The wait wasn’t long: in 2003, after its wing was damaged during launch, Columbia was torn to pieces on re-entry through the Earth’s atmosphere, when the damaged outer shell could no longer provide protection against the superheated gases in the upper atmopshere. The entire crew was lost and painful memories of Challenger resurfaced. How did the damage occur? Why was it deemed safe for re-entry? Could the crew have prevented the accident? Could their deaths have been avoided?
The Columbia Crew Survival Investigation report attempts to answer some of these final questions. The study team identified five lethal scenarios in the final moments before Columbia’s catastrophic breakup that would have made survival of the crew impossible. The loss of pressure in the cabin when the shuttle broke was too sudden for the crew to configure their suits to full protection, particularly as they were desperately trying to fix the problems that were evident. They would have lost consciousness instantly. While unconscious, their suits did not offer sufficient protection against the violent spinning of the out of control shuttle and this would have caused lethal trauma. The sequence of events after the complete disintegration of the shuttle, the crew’s exposure to re-entry conditions, the near-vacuum, cold-temperature conditions, and final ground impact, would all have proven deadly.
In other words, the crew had no chance.
Despite this, the report does make many recommendations to NASA for improving shuttle crew safety, mainly focusing on how to keep the crew alive even when they lose consciousness: better design of protective helmets and automatic deployment of oxygen supplies and parachutes – all of which required the astronauts to activate manually.
I really hope this report is read widely, by spacecraft designers but also managers, politicians and the public. Only if safety is given the highest priority can human spaceflight fulfill its potential and continue to inspire people around the world about space and the Universe. Read it here (and more here). A transcript of the news teleconference can be found here. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report, detailing the technical causes of the accident, can be found here.