Report on Columbia Finds Gear Lacking

Debris from Columbia streaks across the sky over Texas on Feb. 1, 2003. A NASA team recommends 30 changes in astronauts' protective equipment.
Debris from Columbia streaks across the sky over Texas on Feb. 1, 2003. A NASA team recommends 30 changes in astronauts' protective equipment. (By Scott Lieberman -- Associated Press)
By Seth Borenstein
Associated Press
Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The seat restraints, pressure suits and helmets of the crew of the space shuttle Columbia did not work well, leading to "lethal trauma" as the out-of-control ship lost pressure and broke apart, killing all seven astronauts, according to a new NASA report.

At least one crew member was alive and pushing buttons for half a minute after a first loud alarm sounded, as he futilely tried to right Columbia on Feb. 1, 2003. By that time, there was nothing anyone could have done to survive as the shuttle streaked over Texas.

NASA hopes that scrutinizing the final minutes of the shuttle disaster will help engineers design a new shuttle replacement capsule more capable of surviving an accident. An internal NASA team recommends 30 changes based on lessons learned from Columbia, many of them aimed at pressurization suits, helmets and seat belts.

As was already known, the astronauts died either from lack of oxygen during depressurization or from hitting something as the spacecraft spun violently out of control. The report said it was not clear which of those events killed them.

Three crew members were not wearing gloves, which provide crucial protection from depressurization. One was not in the seat, one was not wearing a helmet, and several were not fully strapped in. The gloves were off because they are too bulky for certain tasks, and there is too little time to prepare for reentry, the report notes.

Even if all those procedures had been followed, the astronauts still would not have survived, the report says.

The new report comes five years after an independent investigation panel issued its own exhaustive analysis on Columbia, but it focused heavily on the cause of the accident and the culture of NASA.

Columbia disintegrated as it returned to Earth at the end of its space mission. The accident was caused by a hole in the shuttle's left wing from a piece of foam insulation that smashed into it upon launch. The breach in the wing brought it down as it was returning to Earth. Killed in the disaster were commander Rick D. Husband, pilot William C. McCool, Michael P. Anderson, David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon of Israel.

Clark's husband, former NASA flight surgeon Jonathan Clark, praised NASA's leadership for releasing 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 did not want to produce the report because it would again put the astronauts' families in the media spotlight.

Some of the recommendations 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, McCool's sister, said a copy of the report arrived at her Florida home yesterday morning but that 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."

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