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Columbia's Final Minutes
January 27, 2004 1:07 PM   Subscribe

Columbia's Final Minutes A fascinating (if horrifying) account of the shuttle's destruction.
posted by jpoulos (12 comments total)

 
It's kind of sobering to think that it took me more time to read that article than the time the astronauts and ground crew had from when they knew something was wrong to the time it was all over.
posted by Cyrano at 1:44 PM on January 27, 2004


What could be a more terrifying end, than to know something was horribly wrong and knowing there was nothing you could do about it?
posted by tommasz at 1:59 PM on January 27, 2004


yikes.

No. There's nothing more intelligent I can say about it.
posted by Perigee at 2:09 PM on January 27, 2004


What could be a more terrifying end, than to know something was horribly wrong and knowing there was nothing you could do about it?

A predicament all too common among last moments.

Such a horrible tale and yet we are drawn to such stories like moths to candles. It touches the nerve.
posted by y2karl at 2:51 PM on January 27, 2004


On the Columbia crash, readers may also want to check out William Langewiesche's article, "Columbia's Last Flight," which ran in the Atlantic Monthly last November.

Atlantic readers will remember Langewiesche from his incredible article about the "unbuilding" of the World Trade Center site (sorry, can't post whole article, since it became a book).
posted by mrmcsurly at 3:12 PM on January 27, 2004


Damn. I remember when I first read of this - right here, to be exact. It hasn't gotten much easier to contemplate with a year's passing.
posted by alumshubby at 4:02 PM on January 27, 2004


"Challenger's crew module had also broken away in one piece when the shuttle disintegrated during launch 17 years earlier. As with Challenger, the forces acting on Columbia's crew during this period were not violent enough to cause injury, and investigators believe the astronauts probably survived the initial breakup of the orbiter...

But investigators were struck by the way the crew modules of both Challenger and Columbia broke away relatively intact. The survivability study concluded relatively modest design changes might enable future crews to survive long enough to bail out.

But Columbia's crew had no chance. The astronauts fell to Earth amid a cloud of wreckage and debris."


This is the part that gets me. They had maybe 30-35 seconds from the time they knew something was amiss--not a huge amount of time, but enough that surely some of them could have bailed out, or have the crew compartment separate to land with a parachute as the Apollo programs did. Instead, they weren't even all wearing their flight suits, gloves, and helmets, and 17 years after Challenger, the crew compartment still had not been strengthened or had a method for separation developed.
posted by Asparagirl at 7:13 PM on January 27, 2004


Thanks, jpoulos. Good find. I have put just about every book on the accident on my Amazon wishlist, and I second mrmcsurly's tip on the Atlantic Monthly story. Even better than this one. I went to Space Camp as a kid (not just once, but twice) and find this stuff fascinating.
posted by msacheson at 9:35 PM on January 27, 2004


Asparagirl "Relatively modest changes" means designing and building a new vehicle altogether - a fleet of them, actually. Remember, these birds are flown again and again. Probably most people in the shuttle program at NASA would like a change (the shuttle showcases state-of-the-art technology ... of the 70's). But when it comes, it will be extremely costly.

Astronauts are well aware of the risks involved. If this crew had noticed their problems earlier and been able to reach the ISS and it's 3-men escape pod, it is a certainty that they would all volunteer to stay back rather than save themselves at the expense of the rest of the crew.

"...the gs initially are not so much the main thing that we sense. Primarily during first stage, it's the vibrations. The gs do, though, eventually build up to about 2.5. At the two-minute point, they start to tail off as the solid rocket boosters run out of propellant, and so we feel a deceleration from two-and-a-half down to 1 g, which we perceive actually as coming to a stop. So it's kind of an eerie feeling."
posted by magullo at 2:48 AM on January 28, 2004


I have been for the past few days debating whether this or the voice of the flight attendant on one of the 9/11 planes is a more disturbing legacy to leave behind...
posted by Ogre Lawless at 5:28 PM on January 28, 2004


Asparagirl,


Yeah, it's crazy that they simply didn't don their parachutes and jump out. After all, they were merely 30 miles high and going over 15,000 mph.
posted by drstrangelove at 6:10 PM on January 28, 2004


This is the part that gets me. They had maybe 30-35 seconds from the time they knew something was amiss--not a huge amount of time, but enough that surely some of them could have bailed out, or have the crew compartment separate to land with a parachute as the Apollo programs did. Instead, they weren't even all wearing their flight suits, gloves, and helmets, and 17 years after Challenger, the crew compartment still had not been strengthened or had a method for separation developed.

A common reaction. But the Return to Flight after Challenger included 32 months of downtime and well over $1 billion spent on redesign of shuttle systems concentrating on crew safety, including the bailout (only possible if the orbiter can return to stable level flight); over $350M was spent on improving the solid rocket boosters -- the source of Challenger's failure -- alone. Following Return to Flight, several billion more were spent in the Shuttle Upgrades Program, which ultimately gave Columbia a thorough overhaul just before its own demise, arguably flying with higher technical margins of safety than it ever had -- thousands of miles of old, original wiring removed, replaced with efficient, modern systems, and the glass cockpit and finally the oldest shuttle in the fleet with the newest computers. The irony here isn't that enough wasn't done to redesign the shuttle for surviving rare situations which probably couldn't be designed for. (A key point often missed by the general public, as well, is that a technological change might introduce new dangers. A crew compartment with a parachute, for example, is endangered if the explosive bolts detonate at the wrong time.) The irony is that despite these efforts, NASA's flawed culture still managed to get astronauts killed in much the same way as before.

The foam strikes, just like the O-ring burn-throughs, weren't recognized by management as potential show-stoppers. The low-level engineers who saw them as risky were overruled. The danger never percolated upward to the top levels of flight safety determination. The management and bureaucracy actively worked, cluelessly rather than deliberately, against the ultimate safety of the crews. The similarity is really chilling.

The shuttles, when you get down to it, are incredibly fragile pieces of equipment, which fly through unearthly levels of turbulence and heat, for the most part safely. What's unconscionable is that the stupidity reinforced by bureaucratic mechanisms inside an organization supposedly healed by previous disaster followed much the same path. Foam strikes? Can't be dangerous -- after all, they never killed anyone yet. Test the proposition? What are you, some kind of engineer?

Why the foam vs. wing test was never done. Why the shuttle wasn't imaged in flight. Why the crew was notified in a way designed to mollify them instead of engage them as active, intelligent participants (a la Apollo 13). These are the failures for which NASA must answer, and in the minds of many, has not.

When I think of the alternate scenario -- the rush to launch Atlantis, the determination to save the crew or die trying, the nail-biting as NASA tried solution after solution and prayed one would work -- I see an organization that could lose seven more astronauts and, somehow, live with itself. Instead, I wonder how they can. Instead, the Challenger ethics case study could almost be cut and pasted into the one for Columbia. That's the damned tragedy here.
posted by dhartung at 11:09 PM on January 28, 2004


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