New Columbia Accident Report to Help Astronaut Safety
This image of the STS-107 crew in orbit was recovered from wreckage inside an undeveloped film canister. The shirt color's indicate their mission shifts. From left (bottom row): Kalpana Chawla, mission specialist; Rick Husband, commander; Laurel Clark, mission specialist; and Ilan Ramon, payload specialist. From left (top row) are astronauts David Brown, mission specialist; William McCool, pilot; and Michael Anderson, payload commander. Ramon represents the Israeli Space Agency.
Credit: NASA/JSC.

A new NASA report on the final moments of the seven astronauts killed during the 2003 Columbia space shuttle tragedy is a vital safety tool for future spaceflyers and spacecraft despite hitting close to home for the U.S. agency.

The 400-page report released Tuesday gives a detailed account of how Columbia?s crew attempted to recover control of the doomed shuttle on Feb. 1, 2003 as it broke apart high above Texas.

?This work, we all hope, will go toward making spaceflight safer for all those who venture into space in the future,? said Wayne Hale, a former shuttle program manager who is now NASA?s deputy associate administrator for strategic partnerships, in a teleconference with reporters. ?This report confirms that although the valiant Columbia crew tried every possible way to maintain control of their vehicle, the accident was not ultimately survivable.?

Columbia?s crew was killed in seconds and had only a brief 40-second period between the shuttle?s loss of control and its lethal depressurization in which to act, the report stated.

A hard, long look

A team of NASA astronauts, engineers and pilots spent more than four years reconstructing the Columbia crew?s descent in the report, which is entitled the ?Columbia Crew Survival Investigation Report.? Based on the study, the team found five distinct lethal events during Columbia?s descent and made 30 recommendations to enhance astronaut safety and survivability in the event of a future catastrophic failure.

But the report also allowed some team members to work through the grief of their lost comrades.

?I would say this is one of the hardest things I?ve ever done technically and emotionally,? said NASA shuttle commander Pamela Melroy, deputy project manager of the study team. ?But it was so important and I felt sure that we needed to make the best of all the knowledge we could get out of the action.?

NASA officials said the space agency released the report today, between the Christmas and New Year?s holidays, to give family members of the lost Columbia crew time to discuss it with their children before the school year resumes next month. Portions of the report were also redacted to respect the privacy of Columbia?s crew and families.

Columbia broke apart on Feb. 1, 2003 while re-entering the Earth?s atmosphere at the end of a 16-day science mission in orbit. The spacecraft?s vital heat shield was damaged during its Jan. 16 launch, allowing superheated atmospheric gases to enter a hole in the vehicle?s left wing edge and lead to its destruction.

Returning to Earth aboard Columbia that day were shuttle commander Rick Husband, pilot Willie McCool, mission specialists Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, Michael Anderson, David Brown and Ilan Ramon, Israel?s first astronaut. Exposure to high altitude and blunt trauma caused their deaths, the report confirmed.

Lessons learned

Of the recommendations stemming from the report, Hale said that one of the most immediate safety changes incorporated into current space shuttles are inertial wheel lock modifications on crew seats.

The mechanism is designed to lock an astronauts seat restraints due to external forces much like the seatbelt of a car locks during a sudden stop or impact, Hale said. But during the Columbia accident, the restraints did not lock as designed, subjecting the astronauts strapped in place to extreme forces and trauma.

Seat modifications will also be employed on NASA?s new spacecraft, the Orion crew capsule, to more fully integrate them into the cabin. While they would not have saved Columbia?s crew, they could save lives under a less severe emergency, Hale said.

Launch and landing pressure suits for Orion crews will also be designed to be sealed during re-entry, said Jeff Hanley, manager of NASA?s Constellation program overseeing Orion?s development. The current bright orange partial pressure suits seep pure oxygen into a shuttle cabin when the visors are sealed, violating NASA?s flammability rules.

During Columbia?s descent, one crew member was not fully strapped into place. Another did not have a helmet secured, while the six that did had their visors opened, NASA?s report concluded. Three of the crew members did not have their suit gloves locked in place. ?

While having the pressure suits fully donned would not have saved Columbia?s crew, Melroy said their status did merit changes in shuttle crew training protocols.

In addition to modifying astronaut training to enhance a crew?s ability to shift from spacecraft recovery to survival, NASA has also updated prelanding milestones to allow spaceflyers to focus on their own preparations in addition to getting an orbiter ready for re-entry.

?The emphasis on deorbit prep has always been on preparing the vehicle,? said Melroy, a three-time shuttle flyer. ?There?s an increased recognition of the equal importance of configuring the crew equipment for entry.?

The new Columbia accident report is expected to be NASA?s last investigation into the lost shuttle flight, NASA officials said. While the report represents a chance for closure for some at NASA, others hope it will shore up the foundation to avoid future accidents.

?Spaceflight takes eternal vigilance,? said Hale. ?Our goal here is to do our best to prevent accidents in the future and that is not a subject that is ever going to be closed.?

  • Video - In Their Own Words...Remembering Columbia's Crew
  • Images - Photos From Columbia's Last Flight
  • Special Report: Space Shuttle Columbia Tragedy