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Columbia's lessons for future rocketeers

The new Columbia report focuses specifically on crew survival, and it's not just for NASA's consumption. It's aimed at spacecraft designers around the wor

By / December 30, 2008



The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has released what it hopes will be the coda to the 2003 disaster involving the space shuttle Columbia.

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In a 400-page report, released Dec. 30, the agency's Spacecraft Crew Survival Integrated Assessment Team set out in detail the factors contributing to the loss of Columbia's seven-member crew. The factors point to a range of potential solutions -- from a need to improve pressure-suit, helmet, and seat-restraint designs to the need to train crews to recognize when they should toss out the problem-solving checklist and hunker down in survival mode.

On Feb. 1,  2003, Columbia broke up on reentry, after a ding on its left wing allowed hot gases to penetrate heat-resistant shielding and destroy vital control systems.

Where the Columbia Accident Investigation Board focused on the shuttle program's overall safety efforts, this new report focuses specifically on crew survival should it lose control of its craft. Unlike the CAIB's volumes, this report is aimed at the world.

The report is modeled after National Transportation Safety Board investigations in the hope that "designers of future spacecraft, whoever they might be, can learn from the Columbia tragedy," says Wayne Hale, former head of the shuttle program and currently NASA's deputy associate administrator for strategic partnerships.

The report identifies five stages during Columbia's tragic re-entry that it terms "potentially lethal" to crew members. Indeed, it bluntly states that "the Columbia accident was not survivable." Still, the team's reconstruction of the sequence of events highlighted problems that future spacecraft engineers should keep in mind as they design craft carrying humans.

Put that helmet back on

Take pressure suits and helmets, for example. Astronauts wear these on launch and landing in case the crew compartment loses pressure. But the suits were an afterthought, a byproduct of the Challenger accident in 1986; the shuttle was initially designed as a shirt-sleeve craft from launch to landing.

The suits' gloves are bulky, making it difficult to flip switches, tap keys on a keyboard, or perform other jobs. Helmet visors, for those who choose to wear a helmet on reentry, remain open during landing to help control the amount of pure oxygen -- a fire hazard -- in the cabin.

Often, crew members will doff gloves and helmets. Or they literally have no time to fully configure their pressure suits because standard preparations for reentry focus on getting the orbiter ready, not the astronauts.

The report notes that during Columbia's return, one of its crew members wore no helmet and two weren't wearing gloves.  When the cabin lost pressure, it happened so fast that a fully suited crew member might have had time to lower his or her helmet visor; but they might not have had time to further configure their suits before blacking out. And helmets are not designed to prevent injury should an out-of-control craft whipsaw an unconscious -- if still seat-belted -- crew member.

The report also points to a training issue: Crews are drilled at problem solving; but not necessarily at recognizing when to hunker down in survival mode. Some 40 seconds elapsed between the time the crew lost control of Columbia and the cabin lost pressure.  During this time, helmeted crew members could have lowered their visors, but didn't because "training does not emphasize the transition between problem resolution and a survival situation."

Other recommendations focus on seat harnesses, adequate testing of craft designs for situations where the crew loses control of the craft, and other features that could help increase a crew's likelihood of surviving an accident.

Taking the team's advice

NASA says it already has started to implement recommendations in the report. Shuttle schedules now allow astronauts more time to get themselves, as well as their orbiter, ready for reentry. Orbiters have new seat safety-harness reels that are more responsive than those on Columbia. And the Constellation program, the Bush administration's answer to replacing the shuttles for human spaceflight, is incorporating recommendations on features such as seat and safety-restraint designs.  Crews are training for the transition from problem-solving to survival. And the agency is beefing up the records on even the smallest parts as an aid to future accident investigations.

To be sure, spaceflight is a risky business. But as companies such as Virgin Galactic begin offering trips to space for regular -- if well-heeled -- folks, this report might provide an instructive checklist for potential consumers. Caveat emptor.

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