A NASA panel has just released a detailed report revealing the last moments of the space shuttle Columbia and its seven-member crew, lost February 1, 2003, on reentry. You can download the 400-page report, “Columbia Crew Survival Investigation Report."
The cause of the accident has been clear since soon after the disaster: A piece of insulating foam struck the leading edge of one of the orbiter’s wings. During reentry, searing hot gases entered the breach, ultimately causing the breakup of the craft at an altitude of 200,000 feet. [report]
One thing is clear from the report: Except for preventing the wing damage in the first place, nothing could have saved the crew.
The crew — Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, Rick Husband, William McCool, and Ilan Ramon — knew for about 40 seconds that they had lost control of the orbiter. The report says they apparently tried everything they could to regain control.
Their efforts ceased when the crew cabin rapidly depressurized, causing the astronauts to lose consciousness. “The Columbia depressurization event occurred so rapidly that the crew members were incapacitated within seconds, before they could configure the suit for full protection from loss of cabin pressure,” according to the report.
The depressurization was the immediate cause of death. But in this particular case, sealed suits would not have saved the astronauts; They were at too high an altitude. But in a depressurization under different circumstances, it might.
Also, the chest harnesses did not lock when the cabin started to experience abnormal motions. Because the crew members were restrained only at the waist, their torsos would have been whipped around as the cabin separated from the orbiter and spun out of control. Again, in the Columbia accident, the harnesses offered no hope of survival, but in other scenarios they might prevent injuries.
The report’s recommendations suggest that NASA reevaluate crew training, emergency procedures, pressure suits, and onboard safety systems in light of the Columbia accident. There is still time to incorporate the tough lessons learned from this tragedy and possibly prevent future mishaps after NASA rolls out the Ares/Orion launch system that will replace the shuttle after its retirement in 2010.