The crew of the doomed shuttle Columbia were violently spun around in the cabin as the spacecraft disintegrated on reentry, NASA said on Tuesday in its final report on the 2003 tragedy that includes safety recommendations.
The 400-page report took four years to complete and its conclusions will be used in configuring the future Orion spacecraft that will eventually replace the US space agency’s current fleet of three shuttles due to be retired next year.
In a highly detailed description of Columbia’s final moments, the report said the seven astronauts were unaware their reentry was compromised. The pilot tried to take control of the shuttle, ignoring that his efforts would be in vain, as Columbia exploded over Texas on Feb. 1, 2003.
Things happened so fast that none of the crew, including an Israeli astronaut, was able to close the visor of their helmets — one astronaut was not even wearing one, the report said.
“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,” NASA deputy associate administrator Wayne Hale said on a media conference call.
Columbia blew apart some 20,000m above the Earth as it was returning from a 16-day space mission to land in Florida.
A chunk of insulation that broke off from the shuttle’s external fuel tank during takeoff gouged Columbia’s left wing heat shield, allowing superheated gases to melt the shuttle’s internal structure, leading to its explosion.
The report said “the seat inertial reel mechanisms on the crews’ shoulder harnesses did not lock ... As a result, the unconscious or deceased crew was exposed to cyclical rotational motion while restrained only at the lower body.
Hale said the integrated system recommended in the report would not have saved the Columbia crew from its fate, since the entire shuttle disintegrated.
The Columbia tragedy was the second shuttle accident since the program was launched in 1981. On Jan. 28, 1986, the Challenger shuttle blew up 73 seconds after liftoff, killing seven astronauts on board.
The remaining shuttles — Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour — are to make eight more flights to the orbiting International Space Station to finish construction and carry out the last maintenance mission on the Hubble Space Telescope.
The fleet is to be decommissioned next year, after 30 years of service.