Spaceflight Now

Video shows crew unaware of impending disaster
Posted: February 28, 2003

Thirteen minutes before the shuttle Columbia broke apart 207,000 feet above Texas, commander Rick Husband and his crewmates marveled at the hot gas surrounding the spaceplane as it plunged deeper and deeper into the atmosphere.

The video begins with the camera positioned to the right of pilot Willie McCool near the front windows of the orbiter. Commander Rick Husband is seated to McCool's left. Photo: NASA TV/Spaceflight Now
"This is amazing, it's really getting, uh, fairly bright out there," shuttle pilot William "Willie" McCool commented in a cockpit videotape recovered by salvage crews.

"Yep. Yeah, you definitely don't want to be outside now," Husband replied at 8:46:51 a.m. as Columbia approached the coast of California.

"What, like we did before?" joked flight engineer Kalpana Chawla, drawing a round of laughter from her crewmates.

A few minutes earlier, enjoying the light show outside the cockpit windows as hot plasma built up around the spacecraft - the same hot plasma that ultimately would trigger the shuttle's destruction - Husband told his rookie pilot: "Wait until you start seeing the swirl patterns out your left and right windows."

"Wow," McCool exclaimed.

"Looks like a blast furnace," Husband replied.

Mission specialist Laurel Clark takes the camera, providing this view of flight engineer Kalpana Chawla. Photo: NASA TV/Spaceflight Now
The light-hearted banter was captured in a dramatic 13-minute section of heavily damaged videotape recovered in shuttle wreckage that fell to Earth near Palestine, Texas, following the orbiter's destruction at 9 a.m. on Feb. 1. The tape was shot by a hand-held camera on the flight deck where Husband, McCool, Chawla and physician-astronaut Laurel Clark were preparing for landing.

Crewmates Michael Anderson, David Brown and Israeli Ilan Ramon were seated out of sight on Columbia's lower deck.

The video begins nine minutes before the shuttle fell into the discernible atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean northwest of Hawaii. It ends four minutes after "entry interface" and three minutes before the first sign of telemetry showing unusual temperature increases in the left wing's landing gear wheel well. The tape ends abruptly, apparently the result of heat damage after the shuttle broke up.

As such, the video offers no insights into what went wrong that day other than to show the astronauts were at ease and looking forward to a landing at the Kennedy Space Center to close out a successful 16-day science mission.

Earlier in the flight, the astronauts were told that debris from the shuttle's external tank had hit the left wing 81 seconds after launch. But a formal analysis concluded Columbia could safely land despite potential damage to the underside of the wing.

Laurel Clark smiles for the camera. Photo: NASA TV/Spaceflight Now
NASA officials said later the astronauts accepted the results of the analysis and did not discuss it again. They certainly showed no outward signs of any concerns in the videotape released today.

Columbia's re-entry began over the Indian Ocean at 8:15:30 a.m. on Feb. 1 with a two-minute 38-second rocket firing that slowed the shuttle by just 176 mph. That was enough to lower the far side of the shuttle's orbit deep into the atmosphere over the Kennedy Space Center.

For the next 29 minutes, Columbia fell toward the discernible atmosphere and began feeling its effects at 8:44:09 a.m. - entry interface - at an altitude of 400,000 feet above the Pacific northwest of Hawaii.

Nine minutes earlier - at 8:35 a.m. - as Columbia sailed 500,000 feet above the south central Pacific, the cockpit camera was turned on. The camera was mounted on the forward instrument panel just in front of McCool. He later handed the camera back to Clark, sitting directly behind him.

Chawla, seated to Clark's left, kept the crew on track following a detailed entry checklist of standard procedures. As the minutes ticked by, flashes from rocket firings can be seen out the cockpit windows and eventually, the buildup of a pinkish plasma around the vehicle.

Here are the crew's comments toward the end of the tape. The time stamps assume the tape began at exactly 8:35:00 a.m.

A view of the plasma from the flight deck overhead windows. Photo: NASA TV/Spaceflight Now
08:45:32 a.m. - McCool: "It's starting to glow a little bit more now, Laurel."

Clark: "Ok."

08:45:52 a.m. - McCool: "Do see it over my shoulder now, Laurel?"

Clark: "I was filming, it doesn't show up nearly as much as the back." She was referring to the spectacular plasma sheath streaming away from Columbia's vertical stabilizer as viewed through an overhead window.

08:45:58 a.m. - McCool: "It's going pretty good, now. Ilan, it's really neat, just a bright orange yellow out over the nose, all around the nose."

08:46:10 a.m. - Husband: "Wait until you start seeing the swirl patterns out your left and right windows."

McCool: "Wow."

Husband: "Looks like a blast furnace."

08:46:31 a.m. - Husband: "Let's see here... look at that."

McCool: "Yep, we're getting some Gs." He was referring to the onset of gravity.

Husband: "Yeah."

McCool: "I let go of a card, and it falls."

08:46:39 a.m. - McCool: "I got a bit flip here on the accel now."

Husband: "Yep. Alright, we're at, uh, hundredth of a G."

08:46:51 a.m. - McCool: "This is amazing, it's really getting, uh, fairly bright out there."

08:46:56 a.m. - Husband: "Yep. Yeah, you definitely don't want to be outside now."

08:47:01 a.m. - Chawla: "What, like we did before?" (laughter) Husband: "Good point."

The glow of reentry as seen out the front windows. Photo: NASA TV/Spaceflight Now
The tape abruptly ends one minute later as Columbia was descending over the Pacific Ocean southwest of Hawaii. The first telemetry indicating anything amiss with the shuttle came at 8:52:17 a.m. when a sensor in the shuttle's left main landing gear wheel well showed an "off nominal" temperature rise."

At 8:59:32 a.m., Husband made a final transmission to mission control, beginning "Roger, uh, buh..." The transmission was cut off and 32 seconds later, Columbia broke apart.

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