Documentary Provides Intimate Look at Columbia's Last Crew
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.

It is rare that outsiders catch a glimpse of the private lives of astronauts, especially those who gave their lives in the pursuit of space exploration.

But a new documentary, "Astronaut Diaries: Remembering the Columbia Shuttle Crew," provides an intriguing look at the dedication and humor that spurred the seven astronauts aboard NASA's ill-fated STS-107 mission, which ended in disaster when the Columbia orbiter broke apart over Texas during reentry on Feb. 1, 2003, killing its crew.

At the same time both touching and heart-wrenching, "Astronaut Diaries" is a one-hour window into the two years of training that prepared the STS-107 astronauts for their flight, based on 150 hours of personal video shot by Columbia astronaut David Brown and his crewmates. Brown was planning to make a personal film about his first spaceflight and recorded video throughout his crew's training and up to the point when he entered Columbia's hatch, where onboard cameras took over. The documentary will debut on the Science Channel on May 14 at 9:00 p.m. (Check local listings) EDT/PDT (0100 May 15 GMT).

"While this was not the film Dave was going to make...we'd talked about if for so long, that it was unfinished business," said Doug Brown, David Brown's brother, during a telephone interview. "But it really tells what it's like. You're seeing a film from the astronaut's point of view."

Launched on Jan. 16, 2003, NASA's STS-107 spaceflight was an ambitious research mission to perform 79 science experiments in 16 days. Commanding the flight was U.S. Air Force Col. Rick Husband, with first-time flyer William McCool serving as pilot. Astronauts Mike Anderson, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Ilan Roman and Brown rounded out the STS-107 crew, which worked around the clock in two shifts to complete their science objectives.

But the mission was lost during reentry, when hot atmospheric gases penetrated Columbia's left wing through a hole gouged weeks earlier at launch. A suitcase-size chunk of foam insulation, which separated from Columbia's external tank and struck the orbiter's wing, was later identified as the cause of the accident.

"Astronaut Diaries" blends together David Brown's video with interviews and comments from the STS-107 crew's spouses and families, which gives a depth to the lost astronauts that NASA press conferences and media interviews sometimes can't convey.

"We can all be very proud about what they did with STS-107," says Evelyn Husband, of her husband Rick and the STS-107 crew. "But we're all personally thankful for what they are as men and women."

The program, produced by Brooke Barrows and BellaSwartz Productions, was spearheaded by Doug Brown, who said that the relative anonymity of the lost 1986 Challenger astronauts - who were killed shortly after liftoff in an explosion - in the public's eye pushed his effort forward.

"Making Dave's movie was closure for me personally," he said, adding that he hopes public will see the human side of NASA's astronaut program. "People don't know that astronauts are people too. I hope people can relate, and that this program can relate, that it's still difficult and dangerous work."

While the documentary shows some long-running, but little-seen, astronaut traditions - such as a card game that every shuttle crew plays before walking out to their shuttle on launch day - it is the smaller touches that drive the documentary's human message home.

At one point, Chawla helps Clark tie up her hair so it will fit inside her spacesuit helmet. Earlier - during training with the European Space Agency - Anderson and his fellow crewmates, all highly trained professional astronauts, marvel at their ability to get lost driving around Amsterdam while searching for the historic Anne Frank house. Later, after finally finding a parking space, Anderson puzzles over how to pay. The crew's enthusiasm, even after experiencing several launch delays and hearing rumors of more, also crosses the lens.

"What do you mean, 'Why is this exciting,' we go into space, for the first time at least for us," Ramon, Israel's first astronaut to fly, explains to the camera and David Brown. "For me, it's exciting."

During a video conference with his wife Lani, McCool describes the majesty of the Earth seen from space and how it doesn't hold a candle to his spouse. He then reads her a poem.

"Lani supplied the tape," Doug Brown said. "And it is a powerful event."

While the wonder of human spaceflight, particularly to the STS-107 crew, is highlighted in "Astronaut Diaries," what is missing is a post script. The documentary follows the crew up to the final minutes before Columbia's destruction, with plasma flashes lighting up the orbiter's window during reentry, but shuttle officials did know after launch that the orbiter had been struck with debris. Any discussions between the crew, the ground or each other about possible damage, which engineers at the time did not believe would be fatal, are unseen. Also missing is the accident's effect on NASA's space shuttle program, likely due to time limitations.

The space agency grounded its three remaining space shuttles after the Columbia accident, effectively cutting off its independent ability to launch humans into space. Now, after an extensive investigation and two years of work by engineers to revamp shuttle flight safety, NASA is again poised to launch a space shuttle into orbit.

The space shuttle Discovery and STS-114 crew, commanded by veteran astronaut Eileen Collins, is expected to launch no earlier than July 13 of this year. The mission, delayed since March 2003, will test shuttle and external tank enhancements. A follow-up return to flight mission, STS-121 aboard the Atlantis orbiter is slated to fly in September 2005, with astronaut Steven Lindsey commanding.

"I hope we get back into space soon," Doug Brown said, adding that he hopes the public will think about the rest of NASA's astronauts waiting to fly. "I hope they admire the current astronauts, and I hope their hearts are with Eileen and her crew, and Steve Lindsey and his."

"Astronaut Diaries: Remembering the Columbia Crew" will air on the Science Channel on May 14 at 9:00 p.m. (Check local listings) EDT/PDT (0100 May 15 GMT). (Documentary, 60 minutes).

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