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Sources Say Crew on Shuttle Columbia Lived Longer Than Thought

July 16, 2003

Jul. 16–The seven astronauts aboard the doomed space shuttle Columbia lived longer than previously disclosed, sources close to the accident investigation said Tuesday.

The New York Times reported the length of time may have been nearly a minute after the crew’s last contact with Houston’s Mission Control.

As NASA looks to improve its safety measures, the findings could prove critical to the development of future spacecraft, improving astronauts’ odds of surviving a similar disaster.

The Times, which first reported the discovery Tuesday night for today’s editions, said NASA soon would release more information about the crew’s fate — a topic the Columbia Accident Investigation Board has refused to discuss publicly. The panel does not plan to address the issue in its final report next month because of the gruesome nature of detailing exactly how the astronauts died.

Eileen Hawley, a spokeswoman for Johnson Space Center, and Glenn Mahone, a Washington, D.C.-based spokesman for NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe, said they knew of no plans by the agency to discuss the matter.

“At this point, I have nothing for you on that,” Mahone said Tuesday night.

A source within the space agency who is familiar with the issue, however, told the Houston Chronicle that investigators believe the astronauts died quickly, based on images captured by a large number of photographers — both professional news photographers and amateurs — who took pictures of Columbia’s descent and breakup Feb. 1.

“It’s our thought that this was something very similar to a head-on (automobile) collision, when people are killed instantly. That is what we (at NASA) feel,” the source said. “Do you say a minute? Do you say 35 seconds? That’s very difficult to say. It seems it would have been an immediate thing, but what is ‘immediate?’ That is hard for the experts on the ground to determine.”

NASA personnel who are working to improve crew survivability in the remaining three space shuttles and in future spacecraft have been studying evidence from the Columbia investigation, including where certain debris from the space shuttle fell, information gleaned from a flight data recorder recovered after the accident and debris from the crew cabin. The cabin debris has been separated from other debris laid out at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., and has been kept from public view.

Retired Navy Adm. Harold Gehman, chairman of the investigative panel, has said the board will not tell NASA how to design its spacecraft or whether it should incorporate a more advanced escape system.

A source close to the board said the panel looked into the matter by retaining experts to brief them on the sequence of the crew cabin breakup.

The Times quoted an unnamed investigator working for the panel who said Columbia’s crew compartment was “the last part to come apart, just like it was in Challenger,” referring to the 1986 fatal shuttle accident that also killed seven astronauts. “It stayed together for a pretty long time.”

The newspaper quoted the investigator as saying the evidence showed that the loss of Columbia’s crew was now viewed as preventable.

An audiotape of Mission Control’s final communication with Columbia, released shortly after the accident, indicates the first sign of trouble came a few minutes before 8 a.m. on Feb. 1.

As the shuttle was descending over the western United States, Mission Control detected a problem and was discussing the matter.

Astronaut Charlie Hobaugh radioed up to the spacecraft, 40 miles overhead and streaking at 18 times the speed of sound: “And Columbia? Houston. We see your tire pressure messages, and we did not copy your last.”

Rick Husband, the shuttle commander, responded: “Roger, uh, bu … ” and then nothing else.

By that point, investigators believe, hot gases were burning through a hole in the shuttle’s left wing caused by breakaway insulation foam striking the spacecraft on liftoff 16 days earlier.

Transmission to the ground continued for five seconds after Husband’s last response, then stopped for 25 seconds, then resumed for two seconds. In those two seconds, partially garbled data indicated that the crew cabin was still intact.

The data recorder continued to collect sensor readings for about 19 seconds, until 9:00:18 a.m., when the main body of the shuttle was breaking up.

Investigators reported in February that during the last two seconds of data, there were indications that one of the astronauts may have given the command to disengage the shuttle’s autopilot, either by accident as the craft was plunging to Earth, or in a deliberate effort to take control of the vehicle.

On Friday, Gehman dismissed any concern that the action was deliberate. “It was a (control) stick bump,” he said.

In the January 1986 Challenger accident, the shuttle exploded 73 seconds after launching. The spacecraft broke apart over the Atlantic Ocean at an altitude of 48,000 feet.

The crew compartment, however, continued upward, reaching an altitude of 65,000 feet before plummeting back to Earth and striking the ocean surface at more than 200 miles per hour. Evidence showed that three of the astronauts were alive, though likely unconscious, when they hit the water.

The Rogers Commission that probed the Challenger accident said little of the crew deaths. But as a result of the accident, NASA added a rudimentary escape system to the shuttle for future astronauts. The system allows the astronauts to bail out if the spacecraft can achieve a level and stable gliding flight of less than 30,000 feet altitude, something Columbia never attained.

By Mark Carreau and Patty Reinert

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(c) 2003, Houston Chronicle. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.