Spaceflight Now

Crew module likely survived initial shuttle breakup
Posted: July 15, 2003

The astronauts aboard the shuttle Columbia, strapped into a reinforced module built to withstand extreme forces, likely survived a minute or more beyond the commander's final transmission, sources say. Engineers believe the crew died when the module, buffeted by increasingly extreme aerodynamic forces, finally broke open as it plunged steeply into the thickening atmosphere above Texas.

NASA managers and engineers have been reluctant to discuss the presumed fate of Columbia's crew out of deference to family members and because of the inherently morbid nature of such speculation. Speaking privately, NASA sources told CBS News last week the crew almost certainly survived the shuttle's initial breakup, but they spoke on background only and asked that details not be repeated. The New York Times, quoting sources with the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, reported a virtually identical scenario late Tuesday, putting the issue in the public spotlight.

Columbia was destroyed during re-entry Feb. 1 after superheated air burned its way into the ship's left wing through a deadly breach in the wing's carbon composite leading edge panels. The first sign of anything amiss was recorded on board the shuttle at 8:48:39 a.m., just four-and-a-half minutes after Columbia fell into the discernible atmosphere 400,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean northwest of Hawaii.

For the next 10 minutes, the shuttle's flight computers held the shuttle on course despite ever-worsening damage to the left wing. But finally, as the hot air burned its way into the left main landing gear wheel well, Columbia's computers displayed a tire pressure fault message on a cockpit display. The message was generated at 8:58:40 a.m. Commander Rick Husband called mission control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston seconds later, beginning "And, uh, Hou(ston)..." But his transmission was cut off.

A half minute or so later, astronaut Charles Hobaugh in mission control replied, "And Columbia, Houston, we see your tire pressure messages and we did not copy your last."

Moments later, Husband replied, "Roger, uh, buh..." and again, was cut off. He might have been saying "both" or "before," possibly referring to the tire pressure fault messages. He sounded calm, but the signal was cut off, engineers believe, by the orbiter's orientation: Radio transmissions from antennas atop the crew module were blocked by Columbia's tail fin.

In any case, nothing more was heard from the crew. At 8:59:32 a.m., all data from the shuttle suddenly stopped flowing to mission control. An on-board data recorder, however, continued operating, allowing engineers to reconstruct the shuttle's final moments after the recorder later was recovered.

A final two-second burst of downlinked telemetry was captured on the ground beginning at 9:00:02.66 a.m. At that point, the shuttle's left wing, or a large portion of it, was gone and Columbia's left orbital maneuvering system rocket pod showed signs of severe damage. The orbiter was in an "uncommanded orientation," rapidly yawing to one side. The shuttle's aft engine compartment, fuselage, right wing and crew cabin, however, were essentially intact. All three electricity producing fuel cells were operating and the life support system appeared to be functioning normally, although the ship's cooling system had shut down.

By that point, the astronauts clearly knew Columbia had suffered a catastrophic failure. But there was nothing they could do. A bit of telemetry toward the end suggested one of the pilots might have briefly moved his joystick hand controller beyond its neutral, or "detent," position. But Harold Gehman, chairman of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, implied last week that likely was an inadvertent "stick bump" and not an attempt to take over control.

The final bit of downlinked telemetry from the shuttle timed out at 9:00:04.826 a.m. For the next 13 seconds, the shuttle's data recorder continued to function, drawing power from the fuel cells mounted beneath the floor of the payload bay. Finally, around 9:00:18 a.m., the recorder suddenly stopped as the fuselage broke apart and the electrical system failed.

The reinforced crew module, sources told CBS News, likely survived the breakup intact, much like Challenger's did when that shuttle broke up during launch in 1986. Up until the moment Columbia's fuselage failed, data from the recovered recorder indicates the crew module did not experience any fatal accelerations. How long the astronauts might have survived as the crew module plunged earthward will never be known. Sadly, they almost certainly had time to understand their fate.

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