The crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia, January, 2003.
I remember well the Space Shuttle Columbia crash on February 1, 2003 - as no doubt we all do. I was home alone with the kids, who were then just over a year old. I got five minutes without Barney and flipped on the TV to see what adults were doing and saw it on CNN. It is a strange feeling to be witnessing something like that and to have only two one-year olds to converse with about it. I just remember thinking, "God, this is weird not being able to talk about this with anyone."
I bring the Columbia disaster up because NASA came out with a report on Tuesday outlining in pretty close detail what the last minutes of the lives of the crew were like. As the ship careened out of control, alarms sounded in the cabin. The pilot, William McCool, pushed several buttons trying to right the ship as it tumbled out of control. Neither he - nor any of them - knew it was useless. Before the Columbia crash, standard NASA procedures directed the crew to spend more time preparing the shuttle than preparing themselves for their return to the atmosphere. A few of the astronauts weren't wearing their bulky protective gloves and still had their helmet visors open. A few weren't fully strapped in. One of them was barely seated. Within seconds, the darkened cabin lost pressure and the astronauts blacked out. If that loss of pressure didn't kill them immediately, the violent gyrations that knocked their unconscious bodies all around the ship surely did.
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; and crashing to the ground.
Among the conclusions in the report was a warning that astronauts need to better prepare themselves for landings. It is important to note that even had the astronauts been securely strapped in, wearing pressurized suits and still conscious, in the specific case of the Columbia and the damage to the shuttle, they were doomed regardless. Their fate was sealed, actually, on takeoff: once the ship was damaged upon leaving the atmosphere, there was no way to get them back safely without the ship disintegrating upon reentry.
For future crises, however, better preparation might keep astronauts conscious longer, allowing them more time to try to correct a situation before catastrophe.
As it was, with the little time the crew did have on the Columbia, NASA's new report indicates that they made a valiant effort to identify the problem - and no doubt it was best that they had no idea that there was nothing they could do. "It was a very disorienting motion going on," Wayne Hale, NASA's deputy associate administrator, said Tuesday. "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."
Killed in the Columbia crash along with pilot McCool, 41, were commander Rick Husband, 45; payload commander Michael Anderson, 43; David Brown, 46; Kalpana Chawla, 41; Laurel Clark, 41, and Israel's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, 48.
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