IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

NASA reports new details of Columbia deaths

A new NASA report says that the seat restraints, suits and helmets of the doomed crew of the space shuttle Columbia were not designed to cope with the catastrophe, leading to "lethal trauma."
Image: Columbia crew
The Space Shuttle Columbia crew, 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 on February 1, 2003, on its return to Earth because of a hole in its wing that allowed in superhot atmospheric gases. AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

When the first of many loud alarms sounded on the space shuttle Columbia, the seven astronauts had about a minute to live, though they didn't know it.

The pilot, William McCool, pushed several buttons trying to right the ship as it tumbled out of control. He didn't know it was futile. Most of the crew were following NASA procedures, spending more time preparing the shuttle than themselves for the return to Earth.

Some weren't wearing their bulky protective gloves and still had their helmet visors open. Some weren't fully strapped in. One was barely seated.

In seconds, the darkened module holding the crew lost pressure. The astronauts blacked out. If the loss of pressure didn't kill them immediately, they would be dead from violent gyrations that knocked them about the ship.

In short, Columbia's astronauts were quickly doomed.

A new NASA report released Tuesday details the chaotic final minutes of Columbia, which disintegrated over Texas on Feb. 1, 2003. The point of the 400-page analysis is to figure out how to make NASA's next spaceship more survivable. The report indicated that the spacesuits, restraints and helmets of the Columbia crew were not equipped to handle such an extreme catastrophe.

Many of the details about the astronauts' deaths have been known — they died either from lack of oxygen during pressure loss or from hitting something as the spacecraft tumbled and broke up. However, 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.

Astronaut Pam Melroy, deputy study chief, said the analysis showed the astronauts were at their problem-solving best trying to recover Columbia, which was starting to crack up as it re-entered Earth's atmosphere with a hole in its left wing, damage that had occurred at liftoff. "There was no way for them to know that it was going to be impossible."

The crew had lost control of the motion and direction of the spacecraft. It was pitching end-over-end, the cabin lights were out, and parts of the shuttle behind the crew compartment — including its wings — were falling off.

"It was a very disorienting motion going on," NASA deputy associate administrator Wayne Hale said in a telephone conference call. "There were a number of alarms going off simultaneously. The crew was trying very hard to regain control. We're talking about a brief time in a crisis situation."

The NASA study team is recommending 30 changes based on Columbia, many of them aimed at 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, Melroy said.

NASA's suits don't automatically pressurize, "a basic problem of suit design and it is one we intend to fix with future spacecraft," Hale said.

Had 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.

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 (30,500 meters); 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.

Columbia was the second space shuttle NASA has lost. 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. The shuttle Challenger blew up shortly after liftoff on 1986, also claiming seven lives. Investigators in both accidents pointed to a NASA culture of ignoring problems that later turned fatal.

Dr. Jonathan Clark, a former NASA flight surgeon and husband of Laurel Clark, praised NASA's leadership for the report "even though it says, in some ways, you guys didn't do a great job."

"I guess the thing I'm surprised about, if anything, is that (the report) actually got out," said Clark, who was a member of the team that wrote it. "There were so many forces" that didn't want to produce the report because it would again put the astronauts' families in the media spotlight.

Some of the recommendations already are being applied to the next-generation spaceship being designed to take astronauts to the moon and Mars, said Clark, who now works for the National Space Biomedical Research Institute at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

Kirstie McCool Chadwick, sister of William McCool, said a copy of the report arrived at her Florida home Tuesday morning but she had not read it.

"We've moved on," Chadwick said. "I'll read it. But it's private. It's our business ... Our family has moved on from the accident and we don't want to reopen wounds."

NASA held the report till after Christmas at the request of the families.

John Logsdon, who was a member of the original Columbia accident investigation board, questioned the need for the report, saying, "Those people are dead. Knowing in specifics how they died should be a private matter."

But for friends of the astronauts working on the investigation, confirming that the crew didn't suffer much "is a very small blessing," Melroy said.

Remembering Columbia's 7 astronauts

Here is a look at those who perished Feb. 1, 2003.

Commander Rick Husband, 45, was an Air Force colonel from Amarillo, Texas. The former test pilot was selected as an astronaut in 1994 on his fourth try. He was survived by his wife and two children. Besides flying, Husband's other passion in life was singing. The baritone sang in a church choir for years and used to sing in barbershop quartets.

Pilot William McCool, 41, was a Navy commander who grew up in Lubbock, Texas. He graduated second in his 1983 class at the Naval Academy, went on to test pilot school and became an astronaut in 1996. McCool was an experienced Navy pilot with more than 2,800 hours in flight. McCool was married with three sons. The Columbia mission was his first spaceflight.

Payload commander Michael Anderson, 43, was the son of an Air Force man and grew up on military bases. He was flying for the Air Force when NASA chose him in 1994 as one of only a handful of black astronauts. He traveled to Russia's Mir space station in 1998. The lieutenant colonel was a native of Spokane, Wash. and was married with two daughters. He was in charge of Columbia's dozens of science experiments.

Kalpana Chawla, 41, emigrated to the United States from India in 1980s. At the time, she wanted to design aircraft. She was chosen as an astronaut in 1994 after working at NASA's Ames Research Center in northern California. She had flown to space once before, in 1997. She was survived by a husband.

David Brown, 46, was a Navy captain, pilot and doctor. The Arlington, Va., native joined the Navy after a medical internship, then went on to fly the A-6E Intruder and F-18. He became an astronaut in 1996. Columbia's mission was his first spaceflight.

Laurel Clark, 41, was a diving medical officer aboard submarines and then a flight surgeon before she became an astronaut in 1996. Her role on Columbia was to help with science experiments. The Racine, Wis., native was married to a NASA doctor and had a son.

Ilan Ramon, 48, was a colonel in Israel's air force and the first Israeli in space. His mother and grandmother survived the Auschwitz death camp, and his father fought for Israel's statehood alongside grandfather. Ramon fought in the Yom Kippur War 1973 and the Lebanon War 1982 and served for years as a fighter pilot. He was chosen as Israel's first astronaut in 1997, then moved to Houston the next year to train. He had a wife and four children who lived in Tel Aviv.

This report was supplemented by