Spaceflight Now

CAIB addresses fate of Columbia's astronauts
Posted: August 26, 2003

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board, in its final report, provided new insights into how the shuttle broke apart and the fate of the orbiter's crew. For the record, here are those observations:

At the Board's request, NASA formed a Crew Survivability Working Group within two weeks of the accident to better understand the cause of crew death and the breakup of the crew module. This group made the following observations.

Medical and Life Sciences

The Working Group found no irregularities in its extensive review of all applicable medical records and crew health data. The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology and the Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted forensic analyses on the remains of the crew of Columbia after they were recovered. It was determined that the acceleration levels the crew module experienced prior to its catastrophic failure were not lethal. The death of the crew members was due to blunt trauma and hypoxia. The exact time of death - sometime after 9:00:19 a.m. Eastern Standard Time - cannot be determined because of the lack of direct physical or recorded evidence.

Failure of the Crew Module

The forensic evaluation of all recovered crew module/forward fuselage components did not show any evidence of over-pressurization or explosion. This conclusion is supported by both the lack of forensic evidence and a credible source for either sort of event. The failure of the crew module resulted from the thermal degradation of structural properties, which resulted in a rapid catastrophic sequential structural breakdown rather than an instantaneous "explosive" failure.

Separation of the crew module/forward fuselage assembly from the rest of the Orbiter likely occurred immediately in front of the payload bay (between Xo576 and Xo582 bulkheads). Subsequent breakup of the assembly was a result of ballistic heating and dynamic loading. Evaluations of fractures on both primary and secondary structure elements suggest that structural failures occurred at high temperatures and in some cases at high strain rates. An extensive trajectory reconstruction established the most likely breakup sequence, shown below (see chart on page 77 of the CAIB report).

The load and heat rate calculations are shown for the crew module along its reconstructed trajectory. The band superimposed on the trajectory (starting about 9:00:58 a.m. EST) represents the window where all the evaluated debris originated. It appears that the destruction of the crew module took place over a period of 24 seconds beginning at an altitude of approximately 140,000 feet and ending at 105,000 feet. These figures are consistent with the results of independent thermal re-entry and aerodynamic models. The debris footprint proved consistent with the results of these trajectory analyses and models. Approximately 40 to 50 percent, by weight, of the crew module was recovered.

The Working Group's results significantly add to the knowledge gained from the loss of Challenger in 1986. Such knowledge is critical to efforts to improve crew survivability when designing new vehicles and identifying feasible improvements to the existing Orbiters.

Crew Worn Equipment

Videos of the crew during re-entry that have been made public demonstrate that prescribed procedures for use of equipment such as full-pressure suits, gloves, and helmets were not strictly followed. This is confirmed by the Working Group's conclusions that three crew members were not wearing gloves, and one was not wearing a helmet. However, under these circumstances, this did not affect their chances of survival.

Earth from space DVD
80 minutes of spectacular digital video of planet Earth beamed down from the shuttle accompanied by instrumental music, plus a 4-minute shuttle liftoff guaranteed to rock your living room.