Even Beyond Disintegration, Shuttle Utterly Failed to Protect Astronauts

By Eliza Strickland | December 31, 2008 10:51 am

Columbia crewAn exhaustive report on what happened in the crew cabin during the final moments before the space shuttle Columbia broke up over Texas in 2003 found numerous equipment flaws that failed to protect the astronauts from the extreme conditions they were abruptly exposed to during the disaster. But in somber tones, NASA‘s report also acknowledged that “the breakup of the crew module … was not survivable by any currently existing capability” [CNN].

The mission was doomed when a chunk of foam broke away from an external fuel tank and struck the shuttle’s left wing during its launch; 15 days later, during reentry to the Earth’s atmosphere, superheated gases poured into the hole created and melted the shuttle’s structure. From the crew’s perspective, the shift from what appeared to be a normal descent on 1 February 2003, into disaster happened so fast that the astronauts didn’t even have time to close the visors on their helmets…. The crew cabin broke away from the ship and started spinning rapidly. Analysis of the wreckage indicated the crew members had flipped cockpit switches in response to alarms that were sounding. The astronauts had also reset the shuttle’s autopilot system, the report said [New Scientist].

The report details numerous problems with the astronauts’ equipment, starting with their pressurized suits. Because of a design flaw, the astronauts couldn’t keep their helmet visors down during reentry without causing dangerously high oxygen levels in the cabin, and the bulky gloves made it impossible to perform many tasks. So when the cabin abruptly depressurized, all of the astronauts had their visors up, and several had their gloves off. One comforting conclusion in the 400-page report is that, after the first few seconds, the astronauts were probably unconscious and never knew what was happening. “On behalf of their colleagues and families, I can say that we are relieved that we discovered this,” astronaut Pamela Melroy, deputy project manager for the investigative team, said [Los Angeles Times].

The shuttle went into a flat spin as it descended, flinging the astronauts sideways against their restraints. But the astronauts were protected only by lap belts. The upper-body belts did not hold them in place because the inertial locks, such as those on car seat belts, were not designed for such sideways motion [Los Angeles Times]. Making the situation still worse, the astronauts’ helmets didn’t conform to their heads, and as the crew members were flung around the helmets battered their skulls. Through some combination of oxygen deprivation and blunt trauma, the report says, all the astronauts were dead before the shuttle finished disintegrating.

The report offers recommendations for design improvements to future crew capsules and to the astronauts’ suits. N. Wayne Hale, Jr., a former head of the shuttle program, said, “I call on spacecraft designers from all the other nations of the world, as well as the commercial and personal spacecraft designers here at home, to read this report and apply these lessons which have been paid for so dearly” [The New York Times].

Related Content:
Bad Astronomy: The sad fate of the Columbia crew has more on the new report
80beats: Obama Team Raises New Questions About NASA’s Plans to Replace the Shuttle
80beats: NASA Considers Keeping Space Shuttles in Flight Past 2010
DISCOVER: 20 Things You Didn’t Know About Space Disasters

Image: NASA

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology
  • http://clubneko.net nick

    It’s a comforting thought, but somehow I don’t believe that the astronauts were insensate before the majority of trauma occurred. They knew what was happening, and the adrenaline would have kept them conscious as long as the last beat of oxygen pumped through their hearts.

    Humans are capable of many crazy things. Once, in his 80s, my grandpa was rushed to the hospital with a blood sugar level of 18 (he never tested his levels at home, he just called 911 because he was feeling ‘woozy’). He was conscious the entire time, joking with the paramedics, who were just gaping at him because humans are supposed to be in a diabetic coma well before they blood sugar level drops that low. He didn’t have the fear of imminent death to keep him conscious, just the fact that he was a superior human (survived 26 years after a quadruple bypass in the 70s, back when they may as well have been doing it with rocks compared to today’s treatments). Astronauts are some of the toughest, most well trained humans we have, due to the extreme stresses they have to be trained to endure.

    Now, dead before the final disintegration I’ll believe – but suffocation and blunt-force trauma to the head are terrible ways to go. With any luck the oxygen deprivation would have rendered them insensate – but they’re probably trained to hold their breath well in case of emergency decompression.

  • http://www.groovium.com Steve W


    What’s sadder is that Werner von Braun himself devoted considerable time to the question of space shuttle escape over half a century ago. You may recall the Disney film “Man In Space” and the popular magazine articles in the 1950’s. Dr. von Braun’s distinctive ‘coke-bottle’ design for a 3-stage ferry rocket, or space shuttle, which was to fly to a wheel-shaped space station, had detailed designs for crew escape pods, designs based on then-current work for supersonic ejection seats. The link below takes you to a French company’s beautiful model kit of von Braun’s shuttle design, where the escape pods are well-illustrated.


    “Those who fail to remember the past, etc. etc.”

  • Greg

    Ejection systems would have not helped here, but would have in the Challenger disaster. Placing the shuttle on top of the rocket on liftoff would have prevented both disasters, however. I am glad Discover got the flavor of this article right. Too often I hear little outrage over the design failures regarding safety. A lesser incident would still have resulted in loss of crew and ship such as a sudden depressurization event alone.

  • Dennis

    I am so tired of NASA’s incompetence. When NASCAR is better at safety than NASA it is time to contract out the work and let a lot of people at NASA “retire early”.
    Before this recent disaster a safety survey found the chances of another shuttle having catastrophic ending to be 1 in 60.
    1 in 60. I would not fly in a plane or drive in a car with that statistic attached to it. And don’t give me the old “risks have to be taken to get into space”.
    Having vehicles blow up and disintegrate in the air is not helping us get into space.

  • Frank Glover

    “but suffocation and blunt-force trauma to the head are terrible ways to go…”

    For what it’s worth, anoxia (lack of oxygen) and suffocation (excess of CO2) are two different things. And if you must choose, simply passing out from anoxia is better and faster. If you’ve ever fainted, you know.

    Years after the event, Jim Lovell of Apollo 13 once said that, had they found themselves in a situation where their life-support consumables just could be extended enough to get them back, he’d already decided to first insure the ship was on a course certain to reach Earth, even though an uncontrolled re-entry. He believed that preferable to the ship ending up as a tomb in a high Earth orbit. Then he would allow the ship to depressurize (not unlike that which happened to Soyuz-11) as simply blacking out that way would be preferable (and his fighter/test pilot training had likely exposed him high-g blackouts from inadequate oxygenated blood reaching his brain, so he would know) to suffocating in increasing CO2 levels as the scrubbers to remove it became saturated…

  • Frank Glover

    “…detailed designs for crew escape pods, designs based on then-current work for supersonic ejection seats.”

    Ejection capsules have had mixed results in military aircraft…


    And they’re expected to go into environments where somebody will be actively trying to destroy the vehicle.

    What’s *really* needed for economical orbital operations (and returning to ballistic capsules on expendables, with historic risks of their own, is not that) are well designed vehicles (wether single or two stage, winged or ballistic) that can abort intact from all but the most catastrophic events…just as we do with commercial aircraft (which are not equipped with ejection seats, either)…

  • http://flotserver.net modernrocko

    Dennis: I think we all can agree that safety is of the utmost importance when it comes to getting our astronauts to and from space, but cursing “NASA’s incompetence” isn’t going to further anything. I may be incorrect but you seem to be of the opinion that they’re putting astronaut safety in the backseat, or rather that they don’t really care for the safety of their pilots or engineers. That could not be further from the truth and your statements offend me, to be honest. To me, it’s as if you’re using the disaster as an excuse to place blame. Accidents will happen, and I do agree that they should be avoided at all costs, but it’s not as if anyone at NASA wasn’t doing their best to ensure the safety of the astronauts.

    Also, comparing NASA and NASCAR does kind of show your ignorance on this subject. I would go into an explanation for that, but if you can’t realize that fact, you probably shouldn’t be posting about it.

  • Colin McLain

    To All:
    I have been enamored with NASA and the Space program since a young boy of 7 years old with the Mercury missions and have been in awe of their accomplishments through Gemini, Apollo and beyond. Yes, I do believe they, astronauts and engineers, are some of the “best of the best” we as humans have to offer. The amazing advances in space travel developed in merely ten years that culminated with Apollo 11’s landing on the Moon remains an extraordinary accomplishment. Combined with probably NASA’s finest hour of perseverance, creativity and professionalism in bringing Apollo 13 back safely after near disaster is a testament to their combined abilities and dedication.

    However reluctantly, my biggest disappointment resulting from the two Shuttle disasters was the gross lack of leadership and managerial competency. The mere fact that the cause of both incidents had been thoroughly researched and documented and were ultimately preventable is evidence of this degradation of leadership. The Challenger’s solid rocket booster design tolerances for the “O” ring seals in cold weather conditions were exceeded on launch day. The design specs were known however a “management decision” to launch was inexcusably made to proceed. That is unacceptable and resulted in a catastrophic loss of life and resources.

    Regarding the Columbia, it has been known for years that the liquid fuel tank’s insulation had been falling off during launches. How in the world with all the engineering knowledge about mass, velocity and acceleration that is paramount for the design of spacecraft that these continual life threatening incidents were overlooked or ignored is again unacceptable. With all the safety measures and redundancy systems incorporated into the flight and life support systems how this condition gets missed is unfathomable especially when the fragility of the re-entry tile system is subject to compromise.

    And finally the fact that when the Shuttle program is retired that we do not have another vehicular system to continue missions to the Space Station is absolute lunacy. Relying on the Russians platforms is just another disaster waiting to happen needless to say the political jeopardy it puts us in. Yes, I understand the government funding aspects of all this however it is NASA’s lack of demonstrable leadership and accountability that has led to Congress’s reluctance in funding new projects. NASA has yet to present a viable, working solution for a new spacecraft and it has had over 25 years to develop it. The Apollo platforms were designed, engineered, fabricated, deployed and mothballed in less than half that time.

    Yes, there are some “comforting” thoughts expressed in this report about how the astronauts likely were spared prolonged agonizing deaths however I am certain that even for a brief yet fleeting moment they recognized their fate and were bewildered as to what was happening to them. I hope they were excused that agony. But the most despicable fact is that their fate was sealed long before by some desk-bound, number-crunching bureaucrat with nothing at stake who decided that dollars or his convenience were more important than the crew’s safety. Bottom line is NASA needs new leadership that has both the vision and the competency to return our space program to the performance and stature that it has long since lost.

  • Sam Platts

    Why is it so important to get man to the Moon or Mars? The Robots we have sent to Mars are doing fine. We can send hundreds, thousands of them and learn all we want. We have already proven a human can live for a time in space, but what do we need to have anyone in space for if all the science goals can be accomplished without a man on site. Where does this thinking come from that a man must go there? Undoubtedly, its been around for a long time, from the days of the Illiad, and Buck Rogers, but why? Isn’t it time to change our thinking? I know this is questioning the conventional wisdom, but…

  • BrimstoneG

    What a shame to blame NASA for lack of leadership. Perhaps leadership has wavered from time to time, but let’s put somethings in perspective. The NASA budget has barely increased in several years. NASA is not allowed to promote itself. Projects well on their way to completion or their first test flight–such as the lockheed plane a few years back–are suddenly shut down because someone in Washington decides to stop the funding due to inadequate information. The public believes that NASA’s budget is a significant chunk of the national budget when in fact I believe it’s around 1 percent or less. That’s ALL of NASA, not just manned space flight. All of NASA’s and it’s contractors’ travel has just been cut and personnel may no longer attend conferences. Conferences are the life blood of how much of the space industry communicates with one another and presents findings in a timely fashion. An amazing amount of technology has been harvested due to spaceflight. Goretex that protects firefighters is only one minor example, but the examples are numerous (See the book “The Case for Space” for the HUNDREDS of advances made thanks to space travel) The public, in general, appears to have little support for NASA when it is one of the major mechinations for our advancements in many fields.

    I by no means excuse NASA for how it has handled certain things, but let’s share the blame with the government that ties NASA’s hands in too many ways to count, that essentially cuts NASA’s funding by failing to even increase the budget to compensate for inflation, by cutting funding for projects before determining how close to success the project is and forcing NASA to scrap all the work and money put into the project, and by an indifferent public who doesn’t see the benefits of manned spaceflight.

  • Colin McLain

    Dear BrimestoneG,

    In general, I couldn’t agree with you more. NASA has provided society with a vast array of products and processes that have improved our lives both collectively and individually. And yes they have remarkably accomplished those things with ever restrictive budgets. I don’t discount or minimize those achievements or the huge ones I previously mentioned. And I fully acknowledge the fickle, self-serving behavior of our government and how it handles funding of the programs. You are absolutely correct that NASA’s percentage of the national budget is miniscule in comparison to other departments. I have no problem whatsoever with increasing their budgets and believe they should be expanded.

    I see the role of leadership as two-fold, one, to provide the organization with its goals and direction then, two, clearly stated performance expectations to achieve those goals with the resources available. My singular point is the disappointing role of leadership at NASA in providing clear, measurable goals and adherence to performance expectations for the organization in conjunction with its responsibility to insure that ALL measures are taken to protect the safety of its personnel (astronauts) and assets (spacecraft). My view of their lack of performance in this area is that in the case of the Challenger and Columbia incidents that those catastrophes were fully preventable if only proper adherence to engineering design parameters and safety measures were followed. NASA’s hallmark has been the redundancy of the critical systems and thoroughness of its procedures to insure that the operational and safety systems are performing appropriately. In fact, I am one of those individuals that views a “scrubbed” launch as a success and not a failure because it demonstrates that the systems are performing as designed. The system tells the launch crews that something’s wrong and it’s not safe to launch. My sole issue is that it was poor decision-making (“O” Rings) and lack of attention on critical safety systems (objects hitting heat shield tiles) that led to these catastrophic incidents.

    My deepest desire is for NASA to re-capture its respectability and recognition as the premier science and research exploration entity that it was for so many years. All other government departments or organizations aside, NASA in my view is the one shining example of what we as a country and a people can accomplish when provided clear direction and proper fiscal commitment.

  • craig

    with the current mentality of both nasa and our soon to be socialist government, i doubt we are capable of putting a man on the moon again.

  • PE

    I would have flown in the shuttle the day after either of the disasters…mishaps are going to occur, suck it up and move forward. The shuttle program needs replacing, as the current fleet is worn out. Those accidents may have been preventable, but there is a built in risk that some of us are willing to take. Nothing worthwhile ever comes cheap.
    As for why human space exploration, it is the only way the human race will survive. We need to have at least a colony on the moon and one on mars, to insure we are around in another 100 years.
    There is nothing wrong at all with NASA, it is the American public that has let the space program down. Not the other way around. We went to the moon and then got sidetracked, that was a crime.

  • Brian

    I love NASA. Flaws and all.


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