NASA Details Columbia Crew's Grisly Deaths

Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy explosion memorial anniversary CBS/AP

Seat restraints, pressure suits and helmets of the doomed crew of the space shuttle Columbia didn't work well, leading to "lethal trauma" as the out-of-control ship lost pressure and broke apart, killing all seven astronauts, a new NASA report says.

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 during that disastrous day Feb. 1, 2003.

In fact, by that time, there was nothing anyone could have done to survive as the fatally damaged shuttle streaked across Texas to a landing in Florida what would never take place.

But NASA scrutinizes the final minutes of the shuttle tragedy in a new 400-page report released Tuesday. The agency hopes to help engineers design a new shuttle replacement capsule more capable of surviving an accident. An internal NASA team recommends 30 changes based on Columbia, many of them aimed at pressurization suits, helmets and seatbelts.

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 wasn't clear which of those events killed them.

And in the case of the helmets and other gear, three crew members weren't wearing gloves, which provide crucial protection from depressurization. One wasn't in the seat, one wasn't wearing a helmet and several were not fully strapped in. The gloves were off because they are too bulky to do certain tasks and there is too little time to prepare for re-entry, the report notes.

Had all those procedures been followed, the astronauts might have lived longer and been able to take more actions, but they still wouldn't 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.

The new document lists five "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; being thrown from their seats and the module; exposure to a near vacuum at 100,000 feet; and hitting the ground.

A timeline of what was happening in crew compartment shows that the first loud master alarm - from a failure in control jets - would have rung at least four seconds before the shuttle went out of control.

Twenty-six seconds later either Commander Rick Husband or Pilot William McCool - in the upper deck with two other astronauts - "was conscious and able to respond to events that were occurring on board."

Shortly after that, the crew cabin depressurized, "the first event of lethal potential." That would have caused "loss of consciousness" and lack of oxygen. It took 41 seconds for complete loss of pressure.

Dr. Jonathan Clark, a former NASA flight surgeon whose astronaut wife, Laurel, died aboard Columbia, 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 didn't want to produce the report because it would again put the astronauts' families in the media spotlight.

Some of the recommendations already 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, sister of pilot William McCool, said a copy of the report arrived at her Florida home by FedEx Tuesday 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.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, NASA appointed an independent panel to investigate its cause. That group released its blistering report on Aug. 27, 2003, warning that unless there were sweeping changes to the space program "the scene is set for another accident."

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 that occurred at launch. Here is a look at the seven who perished Feb. 1, 2003:

  • Commander Rick Husband, 45, was an Air Force colonel from Amarillo, Texas. The former test pilot was selected as an astronaut in 1994 on his fourth try. He was survived by his wife and two children. Besides flying, Husband's other passion in life was singing. The baritone sang in a church choir for years and used to sing in barbershop quartets.

  • Pilot William McCool, 41, was a Navy commander who grew up in Lubbock, Texas. He graduated second in his 1983 class at the Naval Academy, went on to test pilot school and became an astronaut in 1996. McCool was an experienced Navy pilot with more than 2,800 hours in flight. McCool was married with three sons. The Columbia mission was his first spaceflight.

  • Payload commander Michael Anderson, 43, was the son of an Air Force man and grew up on military bases. He was flying for the Air Force when NASA chose him in 1994 as one of only a handful of black astronauts. He traveled to Russia's Mir space station in 1998. The lieutenant colonel was a native of Spokane, Wash. and was married with two daughters. He was in charge of Columbia's dozens of science experiments.

  • Kalpana Chawla, 41, emigrated to the United States from India in 1980s. At the time, she wanted to design aircraft. She was chosen as an astronaut in 1994 after working at NASA's Ames Research Center in northern California. She had flown to space once before, in 1997. She was survived by a husband.

  • David Brown, 46, was a Navy captain, pilot and doctor. The Arlington, Va., native joined the Navy after a medical internship, then went on to fly the A-6E Intruder and F-18. He became an astronaut in 1996. Columbia's mission was his first spaceflight.

  • Laurel Clark, 41, was a diving medical officer aboard submarines and then a flight surgeon before she became an astronaut in 1996. Her role on Columbia was to help with science experiments. The Racine, Wis., native was married to a NASA doctor and had a son.

  • Ilan Ramon, 48, was a colonel in Israel's air force and the first Israeli in space. His mother and grandmother survived the Auschwitz death camp, and his father fought for Israel's statehood alongside grandfather. Ramon fought in the Yom Kippur War 1973 and the Lebanon War 1982 and served for years as a fighter pilot. He was chosen as Israel's first astronaut in 1997, then moved to Houston the next year to train. He had a wife and four children who lived in Tel Aviv.
    • CBSNews

    Comments

    CBSN Live

    pop-out
    Live Video

    Watch CBSN Live

    Watch CBS News anytime, anywhere with the new 24/7 digital news network. Stream CBSN live or on demand for FREE on your TV, computer, tablet, or smartphone.