An 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].