The sad fate of the Columbia crew

By Phil Plait | December 30, 2008 3:26 pm

On February 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia re-entered Earth’s atmosphere after an otherwise routine mission. When the Shuttle launched a few days earlier, a half-kilo piece of insulating foam on the external fuel tank had broken off during launch and slammed into the port wing at 900 kilometers per hour. No damage was seen on video taken from the ground, and NASA assumed nothing had happened.

However, what they couldn’t see was that the piece of foam had punched a hole in the wing itself. When Columbia entered the atmosphere, gas at plasma temperatures entered the hole, ate through the support structure, and the wing essentially broke apart. The Shuttle destabilized and was lost, along with her crew.

Series of video frames showing debris falling off Columbia.

The key events have been released by NASA before, but a new report has just been released talking specifically about the loss of the crew themselves. [Note: I couldn’t find anything on the NASA site, so that link goes to WFTV in Orlando that has the report, plus video taken onboard Columbia moments before the Shuttle was lost.]

The executive summary gives five main fatal circumstances for the Columbia crew:

1) Depressurization of the crew module at or shortly after orbiter breakup.

The crew’s suits were not configured for vacuum at the time of the disaster — meaning they were not airtight. Had they been buttoned up, they would not have survived this anyway, but in the future, with more protection in place, a crew might live through such an event.

2) Exposure of unconscious or deceased crew members to a dynamic rotating load environment with a lack of upper body restraint and nonconformal helmets.

The crew cabin split off from the Orbiter and started to spin. The crew were strapped to their seats, but only with what is essentially a lap belt. Their torsos were whipped around, causing lethal trauma.

3) Separation of the crew from the crew module and the seat with associated forces, material interactions, and thermal consequences.

Basically, the crew module broke apart at 200,000 feet and was still moving at hypersonic velocities. Had the crew still been alive when this happened, this event alone would have killed them. Rapid deceleration, seat restraint injuries, pressure, and heat would have all been lethal.

4) Exposure to near vacuum, aerodynamic accelerations, and cold temperatures.

When the Shuttle broke up, it was so high that even the pressure suits worn by the astronauts would not have protected them from that environment.

5) Ground impact.

This is self-evident.

So, what to do? In some cases, there are things NASA can do to prevent these five issues in the future. Better suits and more rigid protocols for them, automatic systems that detect an impending disaster and deploy safeguards (parachutes, for example), better dynamic control of the components to prevent them from lethal motion on descent: all of these may save the lives of astronauts in the future.

Of course, preventing the entire event from happening in the first place is the best remedy. Better foam application on the external tank would only have prevented this particular disaster. There are many, many other things that can spell doom for a machine that is by design meant to travel at high velocities in both air and a vacuum.

But better component design and a more thorough process during that design may prevent future astronauts from going through what those seven people did on that winter day in 2003. In many ways, a simple rocket-to-orbit is safer, since it’s simpler to design and the aerodynamic loads on the returning capsule are simpler to engineer for; that’s why Apollo used it, and that’s why Constellation will as well.

As hard as it was to read the parts of the report I did, it must have been incredibly difficult for the NASA investigation team to write it and release. I’m glad they did, and I hope that NASA, and all spaceflight teams across the world, can learn from what happened. Space flight will go on, and there will be more accidents, more deaths. We owe it to the Columbia crew, and to those future explorers, to do the utmost best we can to ensure their safety while still learning how to make us a space-faring species.


Comments (73)

  1. I read this on CNN’s website. It appeared that some blame shifting was taking place, by saying that the astronauts were not suited up properly (One did not have his helmet on, three were not wearing gloves). I’m not sure if that was just CNN’s reporting, or was part of the actual report. I any case, we can only hope that their sacrifice will bring about something good in the design of both spacecraft and crew equipment.

  2. ND

    It really was hard to read.

    It’s worth noting the recent issues the soyuz capsules where the reentry was steeper than it should have been. The service module did not completely detach and remained attached by a single bolt. It broke off eventually from atmospheric pressure. The capsule righted itself and the reentry continued although with higher g-forces. This is another point for the capsule design for manned spacecraft.

  3. Michael, the report says explicitly that the breakup of the crew module was the bottom line; nothing could have survived that. Had they had their suits on and better restraints they simply would have been alive a few moments longer. It’s hard to think about, but there it is.

    Essentially, no matter what, this was an unsurvivable event.

  4. We need to listen to the engineers that are on the ground looking at the data readouts and stop worrying about budget issues. Of course budget issues will always be one of the most important parts of a human space program when non-scientist/engineers are calling the shots, but the people at the top of the chain of command need to realize that when an engineer says that something may be wrong, something may actually be wrong. As important as human spaceflight is, human life still trumps that. At least as long as we can program robots to do the same job.

  5. Kinda spooky watching people laughing and having a good time right before they die. One says “It’s really getting bright out there”, was it getting brighter than normal already?

  6. I did not read it in the report, I just heard it on the news. The said they most likely survived 45 seconds after the orbiter lost control. Damn, 45 seconds is a long time. I have nothing to say about that.

  7. “…a half-kilo piece of insulating foam on the external fuel tank had broken off during launch and slammed into the port wing at 900 kilometers per hour….”

    Help me with this – what was the relative speed of the foam in relation to the speed of the spacecraft? There’s something intuitively wrong about this figure and the damage that was caused. I mean, it’s foam. If I’m driving my car at 90 miles an hour and I slip some foam out the window such that it strikes the rear of my car .. nothing.

  8. Brango

    7 people who died in the course of improving the future of their species.

    A debt we can honor by fighting those who deny the value of thier legacy.

  9. MDF

    @Don McArthur

    Forgive my quite possible error here, but the vehicle was moving at or over 900 kph, so the foam broke off forward of the wing and slowed down dramatically once free of the tank. THEN the orbiter wing struck it (the foam) at over 900 kph. That’s how i envision it.

    Correct me freely, people…

  10. John Powell

    In any future space plane the crew cabin should be an escape capsule unto itself, able to detach from the main vehicle or assembly during any mode of flight and return the occupants safely to the ground. Crew should have vacuum ready suits on and be fully restrained during launch and re-entry.

  11. StevoR

    So heat and cold killed them?

    Or would have if they had’nt already been dead from the shock, the pressure, the gee-forces, the vacuum and more ..

    Interesting in a sad and macabre kind of way.

    A bit pointless in others – so many ways they’d have died .. Seems if your craft breaks up above the lower atmosphere and you’re not really, & I mean really well prepared and space-suited you’re a goner. :-(

    To be honest, given the choice, I wouldn’t mind dying like that – a quick, spectacular exit doing what you love in incredible circumstances in an marvellous spacecraft among comrades at your peak.

    Far better that, to me anyhow, than fading away in a nursing home losing your mind, or alone and in pain or from ebola or from torture or from .. well the grim list could drag on longer than a mortal’s lifetime.

    I’d certainly rather die on the way back – re-entry – than on launch without getting into space atall like Challenger did onlift off 1986.

    Space travel is inherently risky.
    People die.
    Have died & will again.
    But its worth it.

    On that I’m sure all the Columbia astronauts would agree with me if they were here to do so.

  12. It was demonstrated pretty conclusively by tests after the accident that the foam hitting the orbiter at those speeds could do the damage it did. The work was done at Southwest Research institute. They were able to duplicate the conditions of the accident. Do a Google search on “foam tests columbia” and you’ll get a wealth of information about those tests.

    Click on my name for a link to a story in the NY Times from today to get a feel for the forces and speeds.

    also here:

    http: //

    (close up the spaces to get the link to work)

  13. StevoR

    @ Don McArthur who asked :

    “…a half-kilo piece of insulating foam on the external fuel tank had broken off during launch and slammed into the port wing at 900 kilometers per hour….”

    Help me with this – what was the relative speed of the foam in relation to the speed of the spacecraft? There’s something intuitively wrong about this figure and the damage that was caused. I mean, it’s foam. If I’m driving my car at 90 miles an hour and I slip some foam out the window such that it strikes the rear of my car .. nothing.”

    Er .. thats 90 versus 900 km pher hour Don – that’s ten times the speed difference and I’d also note that your car is built a wee bit differently without special ceramic tyres to protect you from the heat of re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. 😉

  14. StevoR-Correctin'

    Ceeramic ‘Tyres’ or tiles as the case may be. Oops!

    (!@#!@!##$$ typos!)

    Ceramic tyres – now there’s an idea! 😉

  15. Hairy Doctor Professor

    I’ve only had time to skim the report today, and will read it in detail later. A few things not otherwise mentioned here struck me about the report, a couple of them pedantic. The structure of the report I found annoying in spots, as many pictures, action items, and bullet points were repeated three, four, and five times throughout the document. (I tell you three times, so it must be true.) Edward Tufte has pretty well excoriated the earlier reports on both Challenger and Columbia as being misleading, badly designed, and poorly organized, examples among other things of the misuse of presentation packages such as PowerPoint, and as I was skimming the report today I could feel Tufte’s grim commentary once again. I understand a lot of the jargon, so it was still mostly comprehensible to me, but I can see how easily members of the press would glom onto some bits out of context and ignore good chunks of the real message. The final item that I noticed was that a lot of the later sections of the report were redacted, and these seemed to be mostly concerning dispositions of the remains of the crew members. Not a complaint, just an observation. I’ve already learned a great deal from this report, and expect to gain a lot more insight when I can read it in detail. As with anything of this nature, I expect that the people who most need to read this report are the least likely to do so.

  16. Dave Huntsman

    I agree with you on the future, JP. There are combat aircraft that try to make the crew seat area survivable even if the aircraft itself isn’t (eg, the titanium ‘bathtub’ an A-10 pilot sits in has a little of this concept); and the F-111’s original concept was (ideally) to have the entire crew capsule be able to land by parachute no matter what happened to the rest of the aircraft.

    Launch and entry are special events, and will create the most risks for centuries to come. Having a self-contained, super-strong crew ‘capsule’, with its own emergency chute system, can cover a lot of the risk areas. What may be harder, in fact, may be truly sealed suits – or suits sealable within a fraction of a second – that also allow full pilot manipulations of all controls.

  17. ccpeterson said “…It was demonstrated pretty conclusively by tests after the accident that the foam hitting the orbiter at those speeds could do the damage it did…”

    I googled “foam tests columbia” as you suggested. Mostly I found references like this:

    “…In Thursday’s test, a foam piece weighing just 1.67 pounds was fired at 531 mph at the mock wing, which was made of fiberglass — a material 2.5 times stronger than the reinforced carbon carbon (RCC) used on Columbia’s wing.

    The foam left a 22-inch opening on the wing…”

    Obviously. But firing foam at 900 kph from a stationary cannon at a stationary target proves … nothing. Relative speeds, relative impacts.

    But if I am being illogical I am quite willing to have it explained to me.

  18. Brad Thomas

    Don, even after having seen the video you still don’t get it is surprising. Have you ever put your hand out the window of a moving car edge-wise and then turned it to an open palm and nearly have it taken off? Just imagine that piece of foam that same way accept at 900km. The foams speed drops precipitously in just a few feet, not only that, it didn’t hit the wing with a glancing blow, it hit the leading edge. The foams speed would have dropped to zero within a few tens of feet while the craft its self was still accelerating.
    Ever had a small bug hit you in the face at 60-mph? You should try it some time, it may make you rethink your position on this subject.

  19. @John Powell:
    Ever since the Challenger disaster, which showed the crew compartment separating intact, I have wondered why the Shuttle was not designed that way. (A crew module that could either be separated by the crew in case of an emergency, or would automatically separate and remain intact even if the crew were incapacitated.)

    @Palestinian ironist:
    I’m not really sure if this is the place to rant about that.

  20. Woof

    Full report here:

    Columbia Crew Survival Investigation Report (16.2 MB PDF)

  21. Bernd

    @Hairy Doctor:
    The first CAIB (that’s “C” as in “Challenger”, not “Columbia”) report is quite clear on that issue:

    “… At many points during its investigation, the Board was surprised to receive similar presentation slides from NASA officials in place of technical reports. The Board views the endemic use of PowerPoint briefing slides instead of technical papers as an illustration of the problematic methods of technical communication at NASA.”

    I do believe that this didn’t result in enough change in internal NASA procedures, and that similar issues at least contributed to the Columbia accident.

  22. Brad Thomas said, “…Ever had a small bug hit you in the face at 60-mph? You should try it some time, it may make you rethink your position on this subject…”

    Sure, if I’m traveling at 60 mph and and the bug is flying at its usual .05 mph. Relative speed, relative impact. Or am I being unclear?

  23. Lurker #753

    Yes, you are being unclear….. For example, what does the phrase “relative impact” mean?

    What matters in an impact is energy transfer: how much, how fast, and over what area?

    Same energy and duration but different area: falling out of bed vs being hit with a pistol bullet.
    Same energy and area but different duration: falling from a high building vs. walking down the stairs inside.
    Same area and duration but different energy: tapping a nail with a hammer to stand it upright vs. full strength blows to drive it in.

    This is *all* that matters – energy transfer. In firing pieces of foam at a fibreglass wing, they were asking what energy transfer (mainly how much and how fast) takes place if a piece of foam this size makes contact with the wing with this energy over this time interval?

    Such a question can be hard to answer via analysis or simulation, so sometimes the best way is to simply do it by experiment – you don’t need to replicate every last specific circumstance, just the details of the energy transfer.

  24. TimO

    At high altitude and high Mach, you are just not going to do ANYTHING to survive.
    Not even the escape capsules they put in the B-58, F-111 or B-1 bombers would help.
    (They have some at the Air Force Museum in Dayton….)

    Sometimes you just have to throw up your hands and realize that there is a limit to engineering (OK, come back in the 28th century and we’ll talk about magic materials.) In the 20th century you just have to salute the heros, learn what you can and get back to the job.

  25. kuhnigget

    I think the comments about PowerPoint presentations vs. communicating are right on.

    I HATE powerpoint! In my (admittedly non-technical) line of work it’s practically written into the contracts that all information has to be conveyed via PowerPoint, with x number of bullets per slide and x number of slides and blah blah blahditty blah.

    PowerPoint is great for summarizing information aimed at people who can’t think for themselves, or at “prettyfying” a subject and making it look as if there has been more thought put into it than there really has.

    //off-topic rant

  26. Mena

    That is just too sad to read, but I did.
    There was an episode of “Nova” recently about the investigation, in an episode called “Space Shuttle Disaster”. I’d recommend it. The investigation was interesting and I learned a lot about the shuttle itself. The closing was just heartbreaking. Commander Collins gave a very beautiful and moving tribute to the crew from Discovery (STS-114). The lady at mission control’s comments made it even more moving.

  27. ND


    throwing a small piece of metal ball, like lead won’t kill someone, but firing it from a gun/rifle will. How so?

    The Columbia investigation fired the same size foam seen in the launch video at the same speed that it hit the wing edge in the video. It created a hole fatal for reentry. The physics is real, but counter intuitive to your everyday experience.

  28. Chris

    I remember reading a short online newspaper article that day which reported that the shuttle landed safely at such and such a time. Later, when I had learned what really happened, I went back to that article and they had replaced it with one covering the real story. I wish I had taken those guys to task for their lazy reporting. I don’t remember what newspaper it was but I will always be reminded of this dumb little eye-opening experience when I think about the Columbia crew.

  29. mikekoz68

    I don’t think Don is being unclear at all, by relative impact I think he means that if the shuttle and the foam are both travelling at 900 km/h how does this major damage occur. Similarly if one is in a car doing 90 km/h and tosses an apple core out he window, the apple core is also at 90 and starts to slow down as it bounces harmlessly off the side of the car.
    Much different than hurling an apple 90 klicks at a stationary car.

  30. Brian

    Uh, from my reading, 900 kph WAS the relative speed of impact.

  31. Don, Mikekoz68: the relative speed of impact between the foam and the wing was 900km/h. I.e. at the the moment of impact, the shuttle was travelling 900km/h faster than the foam. Does that clear it up?

  32. Gonzo

    I think he means that if the shuttle and the foam are both travelling at 900 km/h how does this major damage occur

    Once the foam separates from the spacecraft it wouldn’t be traveling that fast any longer, it would rapidly decelerate. Then the shuttle drives through it. Take the apple drop it out the window, instead of harmlessly bouncing off the side of your car, another car comes along and drives into it, windshield first. The windshield is shattered, no? Perhaps I am misunderstanding.

  33. Gonzo

    Or does the apple just asplode? We may never know, but some maintain that San Diego means a whale’s vagina in German. Which I am pretty sure isn’t true. 😉

  34. someguy

    well, if you threw a 1 kg apple through your cars window, driving at 900 km/h, and it hit another car several meters behind, i think the other car would be ripped apart. Or at least a hole would appear, not necessarily in the window, but maybe in the engine.
    I wouldn’t doubt the foam theory, because there are some serious calculations done, and we are only presuming.

  35. MNPazan

    This has already been covered at least twice already by other posters, but here goes:

    At the time the foam breaks off, the whole stack is traveling at an estimated 900kph. That speed isn’t a constant: it’s just the speed at the instant during the stack’s acceleration at which the foam detached.

    The moment the chunk detaches, it ceases to be subject to the same acceleration as the rest of the stack, meaning relative velocity when it impacts the wing is going to be greater than zero no matter what.

    But this is not happening in a vacuum. At 900kph air resistance on the chunk is enormous: far, far greater than the momentum of a small, non-aerodynamic mass of foam. Without the huge mass of the stack attached to it, or the thrust of the main engines behind it, the foam does not have the momentum to overcome the air density. As far as the foam is concerned, the air at that speed has the same stopping power as concrete.

    Jog along the road with your hand out, and you feel a wee little whisper of air. Drive down the road at 90mph with your hand out, and you get your elbow gets smashed against the widow frame. That’s a little over an order of manitude increase in your relative velocity to the air. Kick that up by another order of magnitude, and your arm gets sheared off instantly, as if you had stuck it out while driving past a brick wall.

    So, foam detaches at 900kph and WHAMMO, brick wall of air. Within just a few feet of where it detached from, it’s relative velocity to the stack is only slightly less than the air’s.

    Because atmospheric resistance cancels the foam’s forward momentum, 900kph is both the shuttle’s velocity, and the relative velocity of the foam at impact.

  36. Chip

    I agree with the notion that continuing improvements in suit design and safety features specific to future spacecraft might allow crews in very desperate situations enough time to make it to escape pods or capsules designed to resist high temperatures and deploy chutes on descent. Surviving reentry by escaping a disintegrating ship may sound far-flung but the concept is based on a tradition of proven technology stemming from the earlier heat shields, parachutes and ejection seats of the 20th century aviation history.

  37. Elmar_M

    For some reason I could not watch the video. I started it, but then decided not to.
    It is freaking me out. The Columbia tragedy is an example of failed management of NASA budget (from Washington).
    The budget of the Shuttle was reduced and reduced during its development, leading to more and more compromises in the design. What started as a fully reusable (and I think in some designs even SSTO) vehicle that would have been capable of more frequent flights, ended up being a half baked thing that was way to expensive.
    The other reason was the involvement of the DOD in the development of a vehicle that was to be used mostly for science and commercial missions. The DOD insisted on downrange so they could always land in “friendly” countries. The DOD also needed certain other features that would not have been necessary otherwise. All that lead to a overdesign of an uderperforming vehicle. It would have been better to have multiple vehicles for these tasks instead. Now they ended up with a “truck”, “bus”, “lab”, “crane”- vehicle (did I forget one). That did none of these things right and was expensive and unrelyable at all of them.
    The constellation architecture is definitely an improvement in this regard. However, it is a step back in a lot of others. A Phoenix/DC-X like vehicle, e.g. would have been a much better choice for a design. Sure the payload per flight would have been much smaller, but flying them more often only makes RLVs better. An ELV is the same gamble every time you fly it.

  38. Grand Lunar

    My dad found this article as well.

    After reading it, one thing I pointed out was my hope that these safety changes will be put into use on the new Orion, as well as some of the inherint safety factors with it (heat shield protected until just before reentry, nil chance of damage from launch debris).

    I hope we don’t have to go through another tragedy like this that results from errors in judgement and design.

  39. Mang

    @Don et al – The foam broke off the orbiter during launch at at time when the orbiter was already going multiple times the speed of sound. Wikipedia gives this as 82 secounds into launch with the orbiter at 1870 mph. The foam slows down very quickly at those speeds and lost about 25% of its speed by impact. That’s where the 530mph/900kmph numbers come from (yes I know that should be 530/848 or 562/900).

    A Discovery channel documentary the other day gave similar numbers and showed the test reuslts. The mix of real images with simulations of the orbiter with a hole in the wing were spooky.

    I was appalled that NASA didn’t use other agencies space telescopes to look at the wing. Mind you, I’m not sure they could have done much by then. That is the big question. What could they have done if they knew?

    – I don’t think they were anywhere near the space station and I’m not sure it had enough life support either. Even using the lifeboat to offload some of them it might not be enough.
    – Isn’t the shuttle only good for a couple of weeks on its own? How far could it have been stretched out? Could they possibly resupply them?
    – Could a rescue mission be put tother in time?
    – If they could resupply could they repair?

    It might still have ended badly but at least they would have had more time to evaluate options and try things. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been a total loss. Had they known I’m sure not just NASA but the Russians too would have been involved in any rescue – at least in the planning and options phase.

  40. Ah, Google. What ever did we do before it?

    “…That brings us to the heart of your question–how could a piece of the Shuttle break off and accelerate so quickly that it would impact the Orbiter at a speed of more than 500 mph? Your speculation that the piece of foam has an initial forward velocity equal to that of the Shuttle does have some merit to it. However, what you are forgetting is the concept of momentum. Momentum is defined as the product of an object’s mass and velocity (i.e. p=mv). In other words, momentum can be thought of as “mass in motion.” An object may have a very high speed, but if it is very lightweight, its momentum will be relatively small. That principal is key to understanding why the foam accelerated in a new direction so quickly relative to the moving Shuttle.

    The Shuttle was traveling at a speed of about 1,570 mph (2,525 km/h) when the foam broke away, and that speed would have been the initial “upward” velocity of the foam. Even so, the material would have had a relatively small forward momentum due to its low weight. As a result, the upward motion was rapidly decelerated by the high speed airflow impacting against the foam. This airflow quickly began accelerating the foam in the opposite, downward direction. Under the influence of the local aerodynamic flowfield, the foam was then directed into Columbia’s left wing at a speed of about 530 mph.

    Had the foam instead been a much heavier item, its upward momentum would have been much greater and it would have continued to travel upward for a much longer period before aerodynamics and gravity reversed its motion…”

    Thanks to all for your attention to my concern.

  41. e=mc hammer


    You bring up some very good points. A rescue mission would have been very difficult.

    The simple truth is that two orbiters have been lost and both have been due to technical difficulties that were willfully dismissed by senior NASA management. Neither had to happen.

    As for the orbiter being a poor design, please keep in mind that the basic design is 30+ years old — and that when pen was first laid to paper on a drafting table (it’s THAT old) that the best technology available was used, given the objectives. It’s hard to believe that a better system could have been obtained at that point.

    Finally, space flight is an inherently dangerous thing, and every astronaut knows this intimately before they ever strap into a launch vehicle. The successor launch platform (which I strongly doubt on will be Ares) will also be dangerous. This is not something easily made safe.

  42. Mang

    @hammer – That this is very dangerous should be a given. It’s far too easy for the public to loose sight of this.

    We still have a lot of missiles that can get things into LEO quickly. Some of the miltary missles have been repurposed for delivering non weapon payloads. The enemy in these things is always time.

    Even then I would have thought that somewhere NASA’s big brains would have conducted paper excercises that answer a lot of the questions I asked. Even if these put rather large brackets around activities. They may not be interagency enough but I would have thought they would have a store of knowledge on this. Contingency plans of some sort.

    In an emergency people don’t always think as well as in the clear calm light of day. Having laid some groundwork may let the impossible become possible. Anyone who has ever been involved in any kind of technical contigency planning should appreciate that it’s not just getting the technology to line up but keeping people in top form is key. I’ve seen smart knowledgable people glaze over and shut down in tests and miss things they wouldn’t normally. Planning, Procedures, and Practice!

    I recall a 1969 movie called Marooned about an LEO rescue of a doomed Apollo/Skylab crew. Interesting to watch back to back with Apollo 13 (remembering there was some dramatic license).

    Apollo 13 type saves may be the rare exception needing every bit of determination, ingenuity, hard work, and luck. It would be nice to think it could be done again if we had to. Better not to end up having to, but still.

  43. Doc

    “Essentially, no matter what, this was an unsurvivable event.”

    I disagree. You would be correct though if you said “Essentially, given the shuttle’s design, this was an unsurvivable event.”

    Multiple *bad* design decisions were made all along that made this unsurvivable. A hardened crew compartment was considered and discarded because it would reduce the maximum payload. Escape systems were considered and discarded for similar reasons (probably wouldn’t have helped with Columbia, but would have helped with Challenger). The report itself notes issues with the pressure suits, helmets, seat belts, and other factors that reduced the chances of the crew’s survival.

    To say that there was nothing NASA could have done that would have let the crew survive (as the news media have been doing all morning) is not only wrong, it’s also the same kind of white-washing oversimplification that the government has used over the past 8 years to absolve themselves of any responsibility.

    It’s worth noting that a canister of C. elegans was on board that shuttle mission, and the worms survived impact with the ground. Of course such worms are not human and aren’t subject to the same injuries, but the fact they made it to the ground alive suggests that things could have been otherwise.

    I have a close friend who had an experiment on the Columbia. Coincidentally, while Columbia was breaking up, she was involved in a head-on collision. She survived the estimated 70g impact, and feels (as others at NASA do) that the astronauts could have survived their impact as well – given some important design changes.

    I’d much rather that NASA said something like, “We made mistakes. We made design choices and the astronauts lost their lives. We will try not to make those sorts of mistakes in the future.” Instead we keep hearing, “We could have done things better, but there was nothing we could have done.”

  44. James

    Some people here are exhibiting the sort of 20/20 hindshight that you often get associated with these disasters; the simple fact is that Coloumbia was doomed from the moment the foam ripped a huge chunk out of the wing.

    Anything else, like ground engineers being aware of the problem, or not having the right kind of suits on, is a minor embarrasment compared to the fact that the fundamentaly bad design of the shuttle killed the crew, just as it did with Challenger.

    As Elmar_M said, the design of the shuttle was hugely compromised by competing interests (read Wikipedia: Space Shuttle Program for the full, depressing story)

  45. Cheyenne

    It’s actually fairly easy to make design changes that won’t kill any astronauts – don’t launch them in the first place.

    Griffin and NASA think that people in space are essential. For the life of me I can’t figure out why. Oh right, so in case a comet comes our way we can launch 9 billion people out to Europa, terraform it, and get on with our lives. Or it’s for the Mars mission that will never occur in our lifetimes. Or, wait for it, going back to the moon to collect more dead space rocks (“Hey, these are all still just like they were 40 years ago! Nice! Yep, still just dead rock! Yeeeeehaa!”).

    I’m probably wrong though. We’ve obviously made a collective decision that risking (and losing) the lives of those 7 brilliant people was worth the gain that we got from launching Columbia on that mission.

    As Brango said “A debt we can honor by fighting those who deny the value of their legacy.”. I hope somebody like him can give a value on their legacy, because I, very sadly, don’t see one (but hope I can).

  46. Todd W.


    Oooh…dead space rocks? That would be a really cool find, since it would verify that there is (or was) life outside of Earth. 😛

  47. Kid Cool

    I have to say the sooner we retire the shuttle the better.

    After the Challenger disaster, I said this is the price of space travel. After Columbia and the analysis, it is obvious that the shuttle, while impressive, is not a reliable design. Too many moving parts and too many things that can go wrong. Unfortunately, space isn’t very forgiving.

    We’ve had 120-ish shuttle flights and 2 destroyed. This is almost a 2% failure rate. How many peole would fly commercial airlines with a 2% failure rate?

    I am not advocating abandoning space travel, but we need a better method of transportation to and from space. Sadly, and tragically, the shuttle just doesn’t fit the bill.

  48. kuhnigget

    “I hope somebody like him can give a value on their legacy, because I, very sadly, don’t see one (but hope I can).”

    News alert: people die.

    Some people die doing risky things, things that might not have some immediate or obvious payoff, but are deemed by them (the ones doing them) to be of value to themselves and to mankind in general.

    If you don’t want to die doing risky things, then don’t do them. No one will think worse of you. But don’t devalue the lives and decisions of others who did want to do those things.

    As others have stated, the Columbia disaster had many causes, both technical and political. But as the astronauts themselves routinely emphasize, what they do is inherently dangerous and always will be. That’s why they aren’t forced into doing it.

  49. Cheyenne

    Obviously people die (I did figure that one out on my own). To achieve great things we have to take big risks, I’d agree. Apollo Astronauts are one of the best examples of that. They had an extraordinary mandate, the will of the entire nation behind them, and they pulled off one of the most epic successes in history.

    But I’m not devaluing the legacy of the Columbia crew. I’m asking for an explanation as to why we’re risking (and losing) lives such as these now. We shouldn’t risk lives unless there is a clear and substantial benefit to it. Obviously there is a huge benefit and I guess I just don’t know enough about our future plans – since it’s obviously worth losing their lives or we wouldn’t be doing it.

    They are doing real science up there and paving the way for routine, useful, manned access to space right? We’re going to be spreading out and living on other planets in our solar system and beyond in the not too distant future? And we send up people because at this point robots simply can’t accomplish the tasks that humans can right?

  50. Mang

    There is an (uncited) point in the Wikipedia article on the Space Shuttle Program that gave a failure rate of 1 in 75. A bit better than the current form of 1 in 60 (if this is even an apples an apples comparison with disasters). It reads like they expected to loose one or two – possibly more.

    Anyone have better/cited numbers? This seems a bit steep.

  51. e=mc hammer

    “I recall a 1969 movie called Marooned about an LEO rescue of a doomed Apollo/Skylab crew. ”

    The Russians came and saved the two remaining crew members of the marooned capsule. In the movie, the retro rockets would not fire on an Apollo capsule.

    BTW, my dad was a technical advisor for that film. He and Marty Caiden spoke many times about Apollo ground logisitics and procedures. I can remember him at our house when I was a little kid. Nice guy.

    “Apollo Astronauts are one of the best examples of that. They had an extraordinary mandate, the will of the entire nation behind them, and they pulled off one of the most epic successes in history.”

    Very true, Cheyenne, but people often overlook the hubris of NASA that led to the Apollo 1 fire. Look up “Go Fever” in relation to NASA sometime. The capsule was poorly designed, even more poorly built and should never have had human beings in it in an all-up test. A pure O2 atmosphere coupled with rushed construction on top of poor design almost killed the Apollo program.

    Secondly, Apollo 12 lost an engine during ascent, that after having to reboot the spacecraft IN FLIGHT due to a lightning strike at launch. 12 was and still is the only US manned launch in the rain.

    “I am not advocating abandoning space travel, but we need a better method of transportation to and from space. Sadly, and tragically, the shuttle just doesn’t fit the bill.”

    I agree fully, but let’s not forget that the Shuttle system has been used well past it’s designed time frame and has achieved many great things, and it will again prior to the orbiters being taken away to museums. There’s a space telescope to repair, and it will be the crowning achievement to an often derided but quite frankly successful program.

  52. Brango

    Cheyenne: “I’m asking for an explanation as to why we’re risking (and losing) lives such as these now. We shouldn’t risk lives unless there is a clear and substantial benefit to it.”

    If you are asking what are the benefits of exploration, look no farther than the spread of humanity across the globe. Had we sat in our caves and kept our DNA confined to one area, there probably wouldn’t be humans around today.

    We survive as a species through the risks we take as members of it. If we do not explore, we do so at our peril.

  53. kuhnigget

    Cheyenne, please don’t think I’m picking on you. I think you are right to ask what is the point of the current manned space program.

    However, one more thing you said I’d like to comment on:

    To achieve great things we have to take big risks, I’d agree.

    Sometimes humans take risks and pay the consequences even when the payoffs aren’t “great,” just…well, sort of mundane. How many people died building Boulder Dam or the Golden Gate Bridge? Okay, maybe those seem “great” – but really, they’re just bigger versions of things people do all the time. Construction workers fall off skyscrapers. Miners choke to death beneath the ground. Truck drivers slide off icy roads.

    I’m not trying to be morbid, just emphasizing the fact that humans seem to have a predilection for doing stuff that is inherently dangerous.

    I’m no fan of the current manned space program (But I’d love to see us go back to the moon, so I could build my colony.), and that’s me being an old member of the L-5 society. But still, the guys who strap those rockets to their butts do it because they believe in it and assess the risks vs. what they believe the benefits to be. Personally, I bet whatever “science” comes out of the ISS is inconsequential in the long run when compared to what was and will be learned about the engineering and construction process in zero-g.

    Blah blah. I’ve said enough. Happy new year all, from sunny Pasadena.

  54. Mang

    @hammer – re:Marooned. Very interesting history you have. But you’re misremembering the film. A Russian came by and tried to help but couldn’t. NASA cobbled together a booster with an experimental winged crew compartment looking very much like the X20, X23, X24 lifting bodies – which they had to launch through the eye of a huricane. Great special effects and no sound in space either.

    In addition to the Shuttles, and Apollo 1, there was an X-15 crash after exceeding 250,000 feet. Not sure how many the Russians have lost. One before Gargarin (confirmed?) and 3 on reentry that I can recall hearing of.

  55. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    What may be harder, in fact, may be truly sealed suits – or suits sealable within a fraction of a second – that also allow full pilot manipulations of all controls.

    Yes, I’ve been thinking about that. The car industry have a lot of safety experience, unfortunately in other velocity regimes, but they have the idea of true and tested “JIT damage prevention” down pat with collision bags and snap-to restraints and what not.

    Also, it is truly ironic that human bodies can withstand hundreds if not thousands of gravities accelerations, if immersed in a media with similar inertial properties as the body, i.e. liquids as a fetus – and the technology for liquid breathing exists now.

    But nearly all of those systems, as well as collision cages, comes with a heavy weight penalty. I sort of like the flying industry light weight bail out methodology for this. As in, perhaps, ejection seats or cabin cages with high temperature/low pressure resistant instant cocooning shells? In this case only the sky is the limit.

  56. Radwaste

    I have to clear up a few things.

    My company is a contractor at Savannah River Site. We were visited by Roger Tetrault, of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. His lecture addressed many of the points you are all raising and a few that you aren’t. In no particular order, here’s what he said, abridged:

    The foam impact was observed as it happened, and a snap judgment was made that no damage could occur. E-mail records were recovered that showed engineers said it could. After the destruction of the Orbiter, it was discovered via National Technical Means that 1) foam did strike the leading edge of the left wing (ground cameras); 2) a chunk of carbon/carbon flew away from the Orbiter on the second day of the mission (radar imaging, details suppressed, of a 3-5kg chunk of stuff that doesn’t reflect radar well at all). You guys should know that optics don’t work that well on something moving that fast – and the Orbiter won’t show you the impact site. More on that later.

    Also on ascent, two 20-pound explosive bolts were unconfined when they fired to seperate the solid rocket boosters. This was unknown to the ground crew, and was found by the Board when they investigated radar records; cameras didn’t show them leaving their catch enclosures, where welds failed. The new vendor didn’t test the welds. A strike by either of these bolts would have also been fatal (pending the status of Atlantis, next to launch, see below).

    The “foam loss from fuel tank” specification was “zero”. This was disregarded. Foam has been lost on every launch for which there was camera coverage (night launches defeated some angles). The external tank manufacturer was required by the Board to surrender a tank ready for shipping for destructive testing. This yielded all sorts of foreign material between the tank and the foam surface, such as cardboard, a wooden ruler, tape, etc.

    Tile impact damage was also recorded on the majority of flights. The tiles are generally subject to damage during liftoff from ice and foam debris, and during descent from rain or hail. Hail has not been encountered. Most of its time in orbit, the Orbiter flies “upside down and backward” so that impact with any orbital debris strikes the engine package, not a tiled surface.

    The foam impact test was done on another segment of wing leading edge identical to that on Columbia – taken from Enterprise, the drop-test vehicle.

    Columbia lifted with over five thousand variances from design drawings allowed by NASA. Mr. Tetrault was appalled by this; at Electric Boat, where and when he was in charge, it was unusual to allow a submarine to have as many as five.

    The team which was to meet daily to discuss mission status decided on their own they didn’t have to meet daily.

    The capability to examine the wing’s leading edge actually existed on Columbia.

    The ability to rescue them actually existed. Atlantis – yes, with the same probability of failure – could have arrived at Columbia before their CO2 absorbent expired. That was the limitation on mission length as it was launched.

    The flight plan called for all aboard to be fully suited by “Entry Interface”. Since the atmosphere fluctuates a lot, this is defined as an altitude of 400,000 feet. Video shows they were not suited. Although it would not have resulted in survival from this accident, it shows well that rules were not taken seriously by the flight crew, as well as some of those on the ground.

    All the above points are from Mr. Tetrault’s lecture. I still have the video linked on my PC at work.

    Please engage your critical thinking skills when observe the latest report. For instance, making a spacesuit confine head movement is fine when you intend your astronaut to play tackle football on the Moon, but useless when you need her to be able to look around at flight instruments. Please notice that fighter aircraft do not have such provisions – although pilots are strapped in better – as the fighter survives more-violent maneuvering than an Orbiter can. Bleeding off the huge energy the Orbiter carries requires that it not make any sudden moves.

    Rather than surf around the Web – even though the CAIB report is available at NASA on-line, I recommend you get the report at Barnes & Noble or another fine bookstore. It has a great amount of detail, and will answer more questions than you can form gazing at a blog page. I dunno why somebody would claim it’s inferior.

    If you need a main engine, there’s still at least one of them in a Louisiana swamp. It’s a time capsule, making yet another time when we thought that we could discard rules and discipline and get away with it.

    That’s what killed Columbia: operation outside its design limits – before it was even launched.

  57. Radwaste

    I dunno if you guys remember, or saw, the Shuttle launch with John Glenn on board. There were cameras, with audio, on the main engines, and that bit showed me just why the rocket guys have their job.

    For when their engine fires, it screams first at having been awakened, and then does its best to purge everything with fire!

  58. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    The constellation architecture is definitely an improvement in this regard. However, it is a step back in a lot of others.

    At least it prioritizes security over economy and flexibility. Unfortunately the main priority seems to be time before first use, as the alternatives are dropped or uncertain. Also, it is a Moon only technology, and it would be nice to have the complementary ones (LEO, GEO, NEO, et cetera.)

    The Moon? Been there, done that. [Not that there isn’t a lot to discover on the Moon. I would as an example dearly like to see the presumably only surviving record of early Earth history as recorded by Earth ejecta collected by the Moon surface.]

    One before Gargarin (confirmed?) and 3 on reentry that I can recall hearing of.

    IIRC most people were lost among ground personnel in rocket explosions preparing for start. For example, the official Baikonur Cosmodrome so called Nedelin disaster (a missile rocket) death count was 90, the inofficial 200, the generally accepted figure 120. A Vostok explosion claimed 48 persons. Et cetera.

    Then there was Bondarenko, dead in training (high pressure oxygen atmosphere fire) just before Gagarin’s flight; a presumably creatively cursing crashing Komarov in the first Soyuz; and the Soyuz 11 three reentry dead, technically the only deaths in space so far.

  59. e=mc hammer

    Mang, I stand corrected. I haven’t seen the film in 20 years now, and I must indeed be forgetting it.

    If it was the small winged craft, then it probably was Max Faget’s original shuttle design.

  60. e=mc hammer

    Everything you need to know about Soviet space deaths:

  61. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Oh, and as regards Bondarenko, IIRC he didn’t die in the fire but because of it a few hours later, from burned tissue poisoning. Wasn’t he the one that the doctor commented on that the third degrees burns prevented infusion at treatment, except the soles of the feet, due to the construction of the pressure suit he was wearing during the disastrous pressure chamber test?

    So not exactly an Apollo 1 fire, but close. I guess another argument for international cooperation on these things – no need to repeat past failures.

  62. Mang

    @ hamemer – not sure what Faget’s DC-3 looked like but it was well after the film. But you can find photos of the X-RV from Marooned @ (it looks like a scaled up X23 with a kettle glued on its backside).

  63. Mang

    @hammer – while my comment is awaiting moderation. Google (marooned movie sets xrv) to see photos.

    @Phil – preview would be nice!

  64. Nick

    Can someone answer me this:

    What was the cause of the sound and vibration from the breakup? Was it just some type of sonic boom or was there an actual explosion from the fuel?

  65. Ray

    Probably sonic boom. The report stated there was no fire or explosion involved in the breakup.

  66. Radwaste

    “Was it just some type of sonic boom or was there an actual explosion from the fuel?”

    Nick, aside from fuel for maneuvering thrusters and some for the deorbit burn, the Orbiter doesn’t carry fuel in great quantity. It’s a glider, and its orbital height is established by the main engine burn after the SRBs are expended.

    Again: read the report. The book comes with a CD which includes animation of the descent.

  67. The Mad LOLScientist

    I couldn’t get the news clip to play. Anyone know where else I might find it?

  68. amphiox

    One comment regarding the c. elegans surviving. Small and light animals I think have inherently higher capacities of withstanding g-forces simply due to their small size. Also they may well reach terminal velocities below the threshold of injury/death. If you dropped an elephant from a height that a human could easily jump, that elephant would be in deep crap. But you could probably drop a butterfly from any arbitrary height and it would land without even being hurt (earth atmosphere, of course, and assuming the fall is not so long the poor thing doesn’t starve to death first).

    And a small aquatic animal in surrounded by water in its container might not even notice any g-forces at all.

  69. aria

    if the suits had more layers and if the helmets were stronger and made using complex detailed fabrication processes where the fibers and materials for both helmets and suits were more complex, stronger and sophisticated with parachutes, then these people would have landed alive even if the shuttle was scattered in to pieces.

    Also, how about making suits that actually stick to your body? again as above mentioning multi layering, not only in the material of the suits and helmets and the glass visors, but the actual layers of material like your PJs that stick to the body swimming suit like… this would have saved them.
    not failing to mention the gloves that are inseparable from the suit. At the same time furthermore…stronger electronics, quadruple systems in place to keep the pressure and oxygen levels there at the same time installing thousands of micro sensors to measure astronaut’s blood pressure, heart rate and vital signs such as stress and brain waves and impulses plus recorded? in specially insulated EPROMs…….. how about ? perhaps making the cockpit itself? say three or four times stronger?…? why isn’t that possible to be done if the shuttle already costs billions?

    seriously. Why can’t we humans make cockpits to be unbreakable? with parachutes and internal airbags?? i know that this can be done and that NASA will do it and make it right.

    I am looking forward to a new shuttle.


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