New Report Details Columbia Accident, Recommends Improvements

NASA released a detailed and sometimes graphic new report outlining what happened during the break-up of the Columbia space shuttle on Feb. 1, 2003. The purpose of the report is to specify what was learned from the Columbia accident in regards to crew safety and survivability for future spaceflight. The extensive 400 page report contains information that had already been released over the years, but also includes a new minute-by-minute timeline describing what happened to the vehicle as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, and revealing the commander and pilot attempted to troubleshoot a cascade of problems in the final moments before the shuttle went out of control. As the report states, “This report is the first comprehensive, publicly available accident investigation report addressing crew survival for a human spacecraft mishap, and it provides key information for future crew survival investigations. The results of this investigation are intended to add meaning to the sacrifice of the crew’s lives by making space flight safer for all future generations.”

The report is actually quite interesting to read, and it vividly brings back the events of the Columbia accident which happened almost six years ago.

Read the entire report here.

The key information in the report reveals what actually killed the astronauts and how future vehicles and flight should be approached as far as astronaut suits, helmets and body restraints. The facts are that the astronauts were not properly restrained. The lower body restraints held the astronauts in their seats, but the upper body restraints did not hold the astronauts bodies in place, and as the vehicle lost control and was spinning — which the report calls a dynamic rotating load environment — the astronauts’ upper bodies were thrown around, and were subject to blunt force trauma. The helmets also did not protect their heads properly.

However, the forces acting on the shuttle’s crew module in the final minute or so before it broke apart subjected the astronauts to a sudden loss of air pressure that occurred so rapidly they did not have time to close their helmet visors. One astronaut had not yet put on their helmet, and three were not wearing gloves.
Simulaton of Columbia during final roll.  Credit: CCSIR
The timeline shows that at about 227,000 feet above Earth, hot gases entered a hole in Columbia’s left, created by foam from the external fuel tank striking the wing during launch. Alarms started going off, such as in the wheel well, and then pieces of debris started coming off the shuttle. When the wing had broken up enough that it was no longer functional and the ship’s computers could no longer compensate for the unequal forces on the vehicle, Columbia went out of control.

At 180,000 feet, the crew compartment was disengaged from the shuttle, and the module broke apart within a few moments due to thermal stress and aerodynamic forces. The crew died from hypoxia and blunt force trauma.

With current technology available, the breakup would not have been survivable.

Ground based images of the break-up of Columbia.
Ground based images of the break-up of Columbia.

But had the crew been able to survive, and were merely unconscious, they were wearing parachutes. However, the problem with these parachutes is that they require manual activation. The report recommends new parachutes which would be deployed automatically in the event an astronaut was thrown from the vehicle. Additionally, the current ACES (Advanced Crew Espace Suit) suits worn by the astronauts are certified to operate at a maximum altitude of 100,000 feet, and certified to survive exposure to a maximum velocity of 560 knots equivalent air speed. The operating envelope of the orbiter is much greater than this. The recommendation to strengthen the weak areas of the suit system will increase the probability of survival.

Those are just a couple of examples of recommendations in the report of what could be done in the future when a vehicle is not savable, but how the lives of the astronauts could possibly be saved. NASA has already made some changes to harnesses and restraints, and they want to incorporate those changes in the next vehicle, to make space travel safer and more survivable in the future.

Other recommendations from the report:

“Future spacecraft suits and seat restraints should use state-of-the-art technology in an integrated solution to minimize crew injury and maximize crew survival in off-nominal acceleration environments. Inertial reels should be evaluated for appropriateness of design for off-nominal scenarios.

• Helmets should provide head and neck protection in off-nominal dynamic load conditions. The current space shuttle inertial reels should be manually locked at the first sign of an off-nominal situation.
• Future spacecraft should be evaluated while still in the design phase for dynamics and entry thermal and aerodynamic loads during a vehicle LOC for adequate integration into development, design, and crew training.
• Future crewed spacecraft vehicle design should account for vehicle LOC contingencies to maximize the probability of crew survival.”

Recovered flight deck video from Columbia.
Recovered flight deck video from Columbia.

The report also includes images taken from a middeck and flight deck video recovered from the accident, as well as from infrared images taken from the ground during the shuttle’s rentry.

The loss of the shuttle occurred rapidly, and there was nothing the crew could have done. A detailed moment by moment timeline shows that at GMT 13:58:48, a partial transmission was received, which the Commander Rick Husband said, “And, uh, Hou…” At that point the vehicle and crew were still performing nominally.

The last audio transmission from Columbia, “Roger, …” was cut off at 13:59:32.

Complete loss of control of the vehicle is listed as no earlier than 13:59:37.

The report lists several courses of action for more study in the future including completing an analysis on the Challenger debris to compare and contrast with the Columbia findings.

A teleconference to discuss the study is scheduled for 4 p.m. EST. This post will be updated with any pertinent information.

Source: Columbia Crew Survival Investigation.

21 Replies to “New Report Details Columbia Accident, Recommends Improvements”

  1. And this isn’t just about NASA. One expects that any private company that develops a manned orbital vehicle (winged, ballistic, whatever) will take all relevant lessons from these findings, too…

  2. doubt it, private companies cant afford to spend that kind of money, instead they will probably try avoid having accidents happen in the 1st place.

  3. They failed to learn the first time, so it happened again. The only solution for a safe shuttle flight (like every other manned flight to space that I know of)…

    That is, you put your men in a capsule. With the shuttle, the cabin should have been able to serve as a stand alone reentry shelter in an emergency. That would have cost money, and reduced payload capacity. But it would have saved lives…

    Globally, the solution was to never make the shuttle in the first place. Or, to make a really good one. The entire program has been a huge distraction. Combined with the ISS, the maned space flight has been set back 2 decades.

  4. The International Space Station is an expensive mistake.
    President Clinton had two expensive projects going. He decided to go ahead with the Space Station and stop the big collider that was under construction. (In Texas thanks to LBJ)
    Now, the big collider is on the border between France and Switzerland.
    Cutting this expense and thanks to the DotCom boom, Clinton balanced the budget.

  5. Lets put things in perspective shall we? Iraq was an expensive mistake, with the entire era of manned space flight being a drop in the bucket in comparison.

    Sorry I get really irritated when people can’t make the connection between the scientific innovations that manned space flight and particle physics research made possible, and the earthly applications those endeavors helped produced.

    Just imagine if someone in a position of authority thought it was foolish to fund researchers trying to reach absolute zero, and turn gases like helium and hydrogen into liquids. If this person had succeeded we just might not have discovered some of the properties of matter that occur at these temperatures, which will likely be necessary if we want to continue building faster computers, telecommunication components and a variety of other things we will come to depend on.

    On the one hand I blame scientists for not making the connections clearer, but on the other hand, I wouldn’t mind being able to flip a switch that turns off all the scientific advances of the 20th science that people don’t realize came from something they whine about being a waste of money.

  6. For a long time now I have been in mind to suggest that someone look at changing the design parameters for re-entry to include a new form of short speed reduction phase prior to atmospheric re-entry.

    As a glider pilot, I have to be trained to make uphill landings and anyone who has made a few such unpowered landings will be able to relate to just how quickly you lose airspeed, not from any aerodynamic loading, but from gravitational loadings which act the same way regardless of the speed of the aircraft. When flying uphill, the glider slows down very quickly indeed. But what I am suggesting does not relate to any form of aerodynamic flying within the atmosphere. Instead, I am suggesting a flight regime before re-entry.

    If the Space Shuttle, or any other such spacecraft, carried a small surplus fuel load, that could be used to fly the spacecraft against its direction of motion “uphill” for a short time against the slope of the re-entry path its speed will reduce very rapidly. I am convinced that using gravity by first flying the spacecraft uphill will rapidly reduce the orbital speed of the craft without any adverse thermal or dynamic effects which would ensue if you did this after atmospheric re-entry..

    Any such orbital speed reduction will have a much greater effect as re-entry then later proceeds within the atmosphere due to the reduction of loading, both thermal and dynamic upon the structure.

    At the moment, the speed reduction simply slows the craft down while it travels TOWARDS the surface. I simply ask someone to look at using an uphill process as a method of slowing the shuttle speed before atmospheric re-entry.

  7. To: Silver Thread, You are absolutely correct in that “humans aren’t designed for space travel.” We are simply too fragile to live extended periods away from planet Earth. I suspect that mankind will try and try again to get to Mars and maybe beyond at great expense of life. Each disastrous attempt will, of course, generate more data to be incorporated in the next disastrous attempt. Why so many failures expected ‘traveling in space?’ Because man will most likely never develop the ability to absolutely control every atom and molecule necessary to preserve and support life on board a space ship for extended periods. There is no mistake, every atom and molecule must be unequivocally controlled. Oh, we’ll spend billions until it becomes unarguably clear it can’t be done technically, economically or serve any real beneficial purpose to man. Am I a naysayer? The answer is yes when comes to extended space travel.

  8. To get a spacecraft in orbit around the earth you need to give it speed. To get a space shuttle up to that speed you need quite a large amount of fuel, hence the huge external tank and additional boosters.
    To slow down the shuttle you will also need a lot of fuel. Granted not as much as for lifting off since it has lost significant weight (the fuel needed for lift off) but still, the amount of energy you need to put in a mass to get it up to speed equals the amount of energy you wil need to stop that mass again. Furthermore this additional fuel (thus mass) needs to be lifted off in the first place requiring even more fuel to get it there.

    And as for your glider, you do use aerodynamic loads to pull it uphill. Without air you would not be able to fly it at all, let alone uphill. The gliders low ground speed would simply cause it to crash.
    And without air in space, there is nothing to pull up against.

  9. I’m astonished @ the crew’s lack of preparedness and the inadequacy of restraint/safety eqpt. Who was running a scenario groundside? The least that person could have done was advise helmet closure, oh yea and ‘put your gloves on, guys’ duh

  10. I should clarify: I think the shuttle and ISS are nice projects. But they are flawed, and half assed. I would rather have a top notch fully reusable shuttle, built with refractory metals that wont need much expensive repair. I would also want a huge ISS…

    But given the very limited funding, we could do more with the 150 billion spent on these two half assed (sorry for cursing) projects.

    A trip to mars, for example. Or more work on unmanned probes. Such as an Europa orbiter and lander, or at least the nuclear powered Jupiter probe with the strong Radar system. That was the tradeoff: either Mars after Apollo, or the shuttle and the ISS (or freedom as it once was). I think we made the wrong choice, personally. I think Apollo was the high water mark for manned flight, and we have fallen far from there. Plus we lost a dozen people. Certainly Mars would not have been any more dangerous, and the gains would have been considerably better. Now half of the readers of this blog will be lucky to see a man on Mars in their lifetime.

  11. I’ve skimmed it a little bit, but still need to read the whole thing. Kind of interesting the details of what the crew went through. Obviously, there isn’t much that could be done to survive something like this. If they survived getting flung out, what would they do? Set a world record for free fall and beat Joe Kittinger’s record?

  12. Humans aren’t designed for space travel, for the same reason we aren’t designed to cross oceans. There are going to be monumental risks involved in forcing our way into space and there will be catastrophes along the way. How many ships lie at the bottom of the ocean having never reached their destination? It’s a risk, one I believe we must undertake, but we must approach it knowing full well that our lives are at stake.

  13. Excellent post, Silver Thread!

    To Chris Coles: An “uphill” deceleration on one side of your orbit (converting some kinetic energy into potential energy) will simply result in a “downhill” acceleration on the other side of your orbit (converting the potential energy back to kinetic energy). It might change your re-entry angle into a steep suicide dive, too.

    And as Wolter pointed out, carrying enough fuel for a significant deceleration burn would create unmanageable and spiraling weight, fuel & design costs.


  14. To Chuck Lam :

    All that needs to be done is carry a little bit of earth with you when you go into space.
    We carry a little bit when we fly in an airplane above the atmosphere and we carry a little bit when we go in submarines or scuba diving .

    When we go to Mars and the Moon we just carry a littl bit more of earth with us.

    We solve one little problem at a time and we have to go with what we can carry.

    Granted , we weren’t born with wings or radar or sunscreen on our bodies so we just carry a little bit with us …. no big deal.
    We wikk carry our greenhouse and our rovers and our Nuclear Generator power source.

    We will build our Mars house iside the natural caves and if necessary make a manmade cave.

    We shall overcome !

    We can ..We can .. We can.. We can !

    All nay-sayers must register with the govt. and give up all their luxeries obtained from spin offs.


  15. Conic, you speak as if trips to Mars are some kind of dreamy cakewalk. We have learned immense amounts of practical wisdom from the Shuttle and ISS. If we can’t yet safely or cheaply handle low earth orbit projects, then Mars would be far more dangerous, expensive and foolhardy to attempt. Don’t get your hopes up, we will not be ready for manned trips to Mars for perhaps another century. The only nominally “safe” and reliable way to get there entails installing a considerable infrastructure of orbiting crafts between Earth and Mars as outlined by the very thoughtful proposal put out a few years ago, or sending suicide missions. Robots are the only smart way to go, for now, and we should give up on any manned flight beyond low earth orbit or the moon until it becomes more necessary, affordable and safe. The final lesson of these disasters is that all the money and technology in the world cannot guarantee safety or “Return on Investment” in extreme environments.

  16. Larry,

    You misunderstand the energy environment in low Earth orbit. The vertical velocity when docked with the ISS is effectively zero, the HORIZONTAL velocity, (relative to the surface of the planet), is the orbital velocity which is for all intents and purposes, escape velocity. I am trying to get a handle on reducing the orbital velocity by using the gravitational pull of the planet to substantially reduce orbital velocity. At the moment, you are correct, if you change the degree of entry to a higher incidence, the forces involved when entering the atmosphere at escape velocity are destructive. What I am suggesting is that any “uphill” element in the process of reducing orbital speed reduction might reduce the orbital speed sufficiently to make a difference to the characteristics of the de-orbiting procedures.

    I add that the present manoeuvre already has to use fuel to reduce the orbital speed, (the shuttle does not simply drop away), and I am simply suggesting that the inclusion of an uphill element in the manoeuvre may assist.

    Turning to the glider at the surface. If the approach speed for a level surface is, say 45 knots, an uphill landing requires something like 70 knots. the problem is not aerodynamics, it is gravity. When flying “uphill”, even for a very short time, your speed over the surface drops off dramatically. You would need to have experienced that to completely understand what I mean.

  17. Just amazing. In what kind of safety culture did they come up with procedures and designs like this? An astronaut without a helmet? Three without gloves? One wasn’t in his or her seat because they didn’t have time to sit down before re-entry? Seat belt reels didn’t lock? Also, the basic design could have employed a crew safety module along the lines of a B-58 – of course at a weight penalty but we might have saved two crews. Of course had they listened and taken a look at the wing they might have been able to come up with a fix or maybe a rentry profile that would have shielded the damaged area long enough for a very risky but possibly survivable bailout.

  18. To Silver Thread:
    Well said.

    To Chuck Lam:
    I would have zero interest in anything more than 10km overhead if it where not for human spaceflight.

  19. To those wondering why the astronauts didn’t take the time to seal their suits the report does make the recommendation that more focus be given to safety procedures over flight procedures leading up to entry interface. That said it’s hard to see how putting on the helmets and gloves and locking the belts would’ve done anything more than delay the inevitable in this particular case with depressurisation being only the 1st of 5 potentially fatal events faced by the crew..

    On the slightly more upbeat note there is some evidence in the report that the either the pilot or commander or both were still trying to recover the spacecraft between LOS and the CE which speaks well of NASA’s ‘work the problem’ ethos and the crews presence of mind, quite impressive really.

    All up a sad event to be sure but it is part of the cost of curiosity. Ever since the 1st explorer wondered what was over the other side of the hill some have not returned from the journey as often these places had dangers that need to be either overcome or accepted.

    Bagging out MSF as a pointless WOTAM is in itself fairly pointless as we as a species need to go and see things for ourselves, it’s just who we are.

  20. One other thing I normally don’t like to respond to another’s post but I’d like to pose a question to Chuck and those who follow the ‘space is inimical to life so we shouldn’t go there” P.O.V.

    Chuck says “Because man will most likely never develop the ability to absolutely control every atom and molecule necessary to preserve and support life on board a space ship for extended periods. ”

    Chuck I assume you’ve either travelled by boat over the open ocean or in a plane at high altitude? After the failure of the vehicles we travel in we cannot long survive those environments either, in yet we still do so in full acceptance (some say denial) of the risks involved.

    We can only ever work with technology as we go to mitigate the risks while accepting that some are beyond our control for the time being or in fact may never be fully mitigated.

    Technology and procedures improve but risk is always part of the deal and is indeed part of how we learn.

  21. For those who would like more background I refer you to this series of video lectures from MIT opencourseware.

    Specifically the talk by Professor Sheila Widnall who served on the accident investigation board.

    There are no ‘simple’ answers to these things.

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