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NASA Space

NASA Releases Columbia Crew Survival Report 223

Migraineman writes "NASA has released a 400-page Columbia Crew Survival Investigation Report [16MB PDF.] If you're interested in a detailed examination and timeline of the events leading to the destruction of Columbia, this is well worth the time. The report includes a number of recommendations to increase survivability of future missions." Reader bezking points out CNN's story on the report, which says that problems with the astronauts' restraint systems were the ultimate cause of death for the seven astronauts on board.
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NASA Releases Columbia Crew Survival Report

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 30, 2008 @07:01PM (#26273309)

    Is not the restraint systems. No restraint system could have saved them. The fact that their vehicle was disintegrating from burning up might have something to do with it.

  • by JCSoRocks ( 1142053 ) on Tuesday December 30, 2008 @07:12PM (#26273425)
    Yeah, this is a bit like driving your car off of a mile high cliff and saying that the restraint system is the reason you died... yeah... you know... that or the impact and the ensuing fireball.
  • dumbification (Score:5, Insightful)

    by spikeham ( 324079 ) on Tuesday December 30, 2008 @07:12PM (#26273435)

    The mainstream media once again lives up to its long history of mangling science stories.

    The report cites 5 specific fatal aspects of the loss of Columbia: depressurization, extreme dynamic loads, separation of the crew from the vehicle, exposure to space, and ground impact. Implying that this really means inadequate restraint systems is a joke. No amount of safety hardware would permit surviving the breakup and uncontrolled re-entry of (pieces of) your spacecraft.

    Due to NASA politics, the report omits a more accurate summary statement that the Shuttle is an inherently flawed and unsafe design when compared to ballistically stable capsules that can and do survive uncontrolled re-entry.

  • by Tibor the Hun ( 143056 ) on Tuesday December 30, 2008 @07:18PM (#26273499)

    I am always amazed at the quality of forensics in cases like this, or aviation accidents and such.

    I mean this thing exploded, or better yet disintegrated how many hundreds (thousands) of meters in the sky, scattered its debris all over BFE, and yet they can still piece together enough information to deduce who was unbuckled, who wasn't wearing gloves, and who didn't have their visors down.

  • by mea37 ( 1201159 ) on Tuesday December 30, 2008 @07:20PM (#26273521)

    That's one way of looking at it.

    However, the actual cause of death was apparently trauma that would not have occured had the restraints been better designed / utilized, and that information is of practical value to future vehicles and missions. That's the whole point of the report.

    That they would've died of another cause, doesn't change that they did die of the stated cause.

  • by MightyMartian ( 840721 ) on Tuesday December 30, 2008 @07:24PM (#26273557) Journal

    There's also the issue of cost. As it is, getting into orbit is damned expensive. Hardening the shuttle, or some part of it, so it can survive catastrophic re-entry, even if possible, would make manned spaceflight prohibitively expensive. The best solution we have even for the next generation of craft is basically a rescue mission, because there's no feasible way to repair something as integral as a heat shield while in orbit.

    As sad as the loss of Columbia, Challenger, and all the other losses of life in the American and Russian programs are, the crews understood the risks, and took them. It's a dangerous trip, involving systems of incredible intricacy and energy, and you can only make them so resistant to failures.

    But I will say one thing. I think the shuttles were an utter failure, a terrible engineering compromise between the original intention and what a combination of technological limits and Congressional pork barreling. We would have been much better off continuing from the Apollo programs, and putting off reusable vehicles until we were further down the road.

  • Re:I'm sorry (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Detritus ( 11846 ) on Tuesday December 30, 2008 @07:24PM (#26273559) Homepage
    I think the idea is that in a more survivable accident, an improved seat and restraint system, and better procedures, could make the difference between life and death. Look at the improvements that have been made in race cars over the years, like head restraint systems. Race car drivers are much more likely to survive a crash than in the old days. The same is true for high-performance military aircraft. You learn what you can from the fatalities, and try to fix the problems exposed by the accident investigation.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 30, 2008 @07:29PM (#26273607)

    It appears that the pressure suits worn by the crew required user input to "configure the suit for full protection from loss of cabin pressure." Pardon my ignorance, but shouldn't a certain pressure be set as minimum survivable pressure, and a "dead-man switch" set to activate at that point? Not that it would have saved them, but though.

    At least this means they died rapidly and for the most part without pain. Godspeed.

  • by SecurityGuy ( 217807 ) on Tuesday December 30, 2008 @07:41PM (#26273715)


    The report doesn't list a cause of death, it lists five events which were sufficient to cause death, the first being cabin depressurization, and IIRC, the second was the restraint system failing to keep their upper bodies immobilized as the crew compartment tumbled, resulting in what would have been lethal injuries. For the pedantic, yes, the report implies they were alive when these injuries occurred because their circulatory systems were still functioning. I parse that to mean there was associated bleeding.

    Thermal injury would, of course, have been fatal, but by the time they were exposed to re-entry heat, they were no longer breathing (no heat related injuries in the lungs).

    The final potential lethal event was ground impact. And actually, if they'd been in pressurized suits AND the restraint system didn't fail, they'd have likely lived until the crew compartment disintegrated and they were exposed to reentry heat. As it was, they fell unconscious almost immediately after depressurization.

    It's a fascinating report, with what I gather are the more graphic bits redacted. It's quite a thorough and professional job, and though it talks about seats and functions, there's always the awareness that you're reading the story of the final moments of real people, and that the whole point of the report is that we might do a better job of protecting our future astronauts.

  • by Amazing Quantum Man ( 458715 ) on Tuesday December 30, 2008 @07:44PM (#26273747) Homepage

    The claim that the initial "depressurization" would make the crew "incapacitated within seconds" relies on the common perception that exposure to the vacuum of space makes your face explode.

    Spaceflightnow wouldn't buy into that. I suspect that the incapacitation was due to hypoxia.

  • by Bromskloss ( 750445 ) <auxiliary.addres ... acy @ g> on Tuesday December 30, 2008 @08:01PM (#26273883)

    Jokes aside, why is it called "survival report"?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 30, 2008 @08:08PM (#26273931)

    Well said, RobertB-DC. Folks such as these people, military special forces, Everest climbers (the originals at least), etc. don't do what they do in hopes of dying a peaceful death. They recognize the likelihood of their fate and run straight to the edge. If they meet their fate, I have to think that they do so with a lot of 'fight' in them. In any case, they are...check that, were true pioneers.

  • by Qrlx ( 258924 ) on Tuesday December 30, 2008 @08:44PM (#26274233) Homepage Journal

    At 63,000 feet MSL, all the gases dissolved in your blood boils. You die in seconds if exposed to rapid decompression.

    In other words, my arteries and veins are wholly dependent upon atmospheric pressure to keep the gases in my blood from from boiling out as I type this?

    Don't they have some structural integrity on their own? I would be surprised if they suddenly stopped working just because the surface pressure on my skin were removed.

    Briefly surprised. Hopefully long enough to think "Hey, that AC was right! gurgle murgle blurgle..."

  • by cmowire ( 254489 ) on Tuesday December 30, 2008 @09:16PM (#26274549) Homepage

    By "Configure the suit for full protection" that means put on the gloves and push down the visor. All of the controls are designed for a unsuited crewmember, the visor gets in the way and requires you to be on your oxygen system. And the oxygen system is pure O2 so you can't keep it running because there will be too much O2 and not enough N2 in the atmosphere of the shuttle.

    So, no, there's no possibility for a dead-man's switch in the current design. But it's clearly something necessary in a future design. Even airline passengers are protected against depressurization and airliners are fairly safe.

  • by Shamenaught ( 1341295 ) on Tuesday December 30, 2008 @09:20PM (#26274577)

    Not to sound like a 9/11 conspiracy theorist, but didn't they also supposedly find the passport of one of the suspects in the wreckage?

    There's a fine line between pretty fucking cool and bullshit, IMHO. I know that saying that makes me sound like a conspiracy theorist, but I evade that label as I have no theory. I just think it's bullshit.

  • by MobileTatsu-NJG ( 946591 ) on Tuesday December 30, 2008 @10:21PM (#26275253)

    Yeah, this is a bit like driving your car off of a mile high cliff and saying that the restraint system is the reason you died... yeah... you know... that or the impact and the ensuing fireball.

    You drove your car off a cliff. Moments before your car hit the ground, I plugged you right between the eyes with a sniper rifle. Your car hits the ground and creates a dramatic fireball. How did you die?

  • by Weaselmancer ( 533834 ) on Tuesday December 30, 2008 @10:30PM (#26275365)

    There is no reason to design a retraint or any kind of protective system that would keep a person alive during that catastrophic breakup.

    What they noticed is that the restraint system did not keep the astronauts alive during a situation where it could have.

    What if there was an event that shook the cabin really hard, but was non-lethal? The current restraint systems would injure or kill the astronauts and turn a survivable event into a fatal one.

    Having the best safety equipment is always the preferred option. A slim chance of survival is better than none.

  • Re:What? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by ConceptJunkie ( 24823 ) on Tuesday December 30, 2008 @10:49PM (#26275519) Homepage Journal

    an important fact to consider when they build the shuttle's successor.

    Does anyone think our government will ever actually accomplish building a successor to the shuttle? Take the best design you can come up with, multiply the cost by 100 and divide the quality by 100. That's what it would end up being.

    We, as a society, have lost the ability to manage. The technical know-how may still be there, but the culture of arrested adolescence and unrelenting backstabbing and politics will paralyze the U.S. government and any other large undertaking in this society until we can re-learn how to be grown-ups again.

  • by mollymoo ( 202721 ) on Tuesday December 30, 2008 @11:33PM (#26275963) Journal

    One thing that always amazes me, and that most people don't even understand is that the actual atmospheric air pressure difference between here on the ground and being in the "vacuum" of space, is only 14.7 teeny-tiny pounds per square inch.

    Only? Atmopsheric pressure is comparable to the weight of a person on the palm of your hand. I'd call that pretty significant on the human scale.

  • by vonart ( 1033056 ) on Wednesday December 31, 2008 @02:18AM (#26277099)
    You, sir, win five internets. That's bloody awesome. Thanks for making my day.
  • by ZigMonty ( 524212 ) <> on Wednesday December 31, 2008 @04:06AM (#26277587)
    I think it's interesting to contrast the investigations of engineering and aerospace failures with financial failures. Will the ultimate causes of the GFC (global financial crisis) be nearly as well investigated as this accident that claimed 7 lives and a few billion in vehicle? Seriously, 7 suicides are all that are required to make the current situation a far far greater crisis (it already obviously is in dollar terms).
  • by dpilot ( 134227 ) on Wednesday December 31, 2008 @08:07AM (#26278689) Homepage Journal

    But to read the report, it sounds almost as if they want to fix the restraints, and change the pressure suit procedures... so they can suffer more??? I know, they're looking to make "slightly less catastrophic" incidents survivable.

  • by jrumney ( 197329 ) on Wednesday December 31, 2008 @08:13AM (#26278725)
    The real question is, would you really want to keep the crew alive through the early parts of such a catastrophic failure just so they could be burned to death a few minutes later? In other words, should NASA act on what they've discovered in this report, or should they just let things be and accept that when a spacecraft breaks up on reentry, the crew is going to die?
  • by fotbr ( 855184 ) on Wednesday December 31, 2008 @10:23AM (#26279461) Journal

    Capsules are better than the shuttle, yes. Almost always have been, except for the few cases where you need to launch 40k+ lbs of payload AND 7 people all at once.

    I'd mention quality control, but NASA hasn't exactly been immune to QC problems either.

    As is usually the case, simpler = more reliable, and a capsule is far simpler than the shuttle.

  • Re:dumbification (Score:3, Insightful)

    by jmichaelg ( 148257 ) on Wednesday December 31, 2008 @11:55AM (#26280571) Journal

    The thing about the Columbia disaster is Nasa management willfully ignored evidence that there might be a major problem. Unlike the Challenger explosion, the Columbia was intact after the initial problem arose and yet Nasa management refused to allow staff to gather data that would show whether or not the foam impact had caused any damage.

    Management claimed that even had they known that there was a problem, there would not have been anything they could have done to save the crew. One thing that's true about Nasa's engineers is that they are amazingly creative. When Apollo 13's oxygen tank blew up, within a day, engineering came up with a hack that enabled the crew to use the co2 scrubbers on the LEM. It literally saved the astronaut's lives. Had engineering been given a chance to solve the problem of how to get the crew back safely, there's simply no way, a priori, to know whether engineering would have succeeded. And yet, management denied engineering the opportunity to attack the problem.

    For the life of me, I don't understand why the managers who turned down requests to take a look at Columbia's heat shield weren't charged with criminal negligence. They failed to examine all the options that may have been available to save the astronauts. The astronauts died because Nasa management was bull headed.

  • by Sloppy ( 14984 ) on Wednesday December 31, 2008 @11:55AM (#26280583) Homepage Journal

    The real question is, would you really want to keep the crew alive through the early parts of such a catastrophic failure just so they could be burned to death a few minutes later?

    NASA's position is going to be Hell Yes. If you can keep 'em alive a little longer through such a catastrophic failure, then you can probably also keep 'em alive longer through a less catastrophic failure.

    They're going to be thinking, "Ok, what if some astronauts suddenly find themselves in a spin but they're not re-entering an atmosphere at the moment. Do we want their upper bodies to flop around until half their bones are broken, or do we want them pinned to their seats for a few seconds muttering, 'HAL, engage spin recovery' and then live happily ever after?"

    The result being an edict handed down: put on your seat belts.

  • by prisoner-of-enigma ( 535770 ) on Wednesday December 31, 2008 @12:04PM (#26280731) Homepage

    The real question is, would you really want to keep the crew alive through the early parts of such a catastrophic failure just so they could be burned to death a few minutes later? In other words, should NASA act on what they've discovered in this report, or should they just let things be and accept that when a spacecraft breaks up on reentry, the crew is going to die?

    I've got another option: how about NASA not using a spacecraft that is required to violate its own design criteria in order to function.

    In case you're unaware of it, Thermal Protection System (TPS) design criteria were that the tiles would not be exposed to debris impacts during launch. Since the very first launch of the Shuttle, tile dings have been recorded despite the fact that the tiles were never designed to deal with impacts. This should have sent up a huge red flag at NASA. For some engineers, it did. But the problem was the fundamentally flawed design of the entire Shuttle system, namely that of having the exposed TPS tiles alongside the External Tank (ET), which being full of liquid hydrogen and oxygen was guaranteed to produce ice debris. Since NASA accepted and built a known-flawed design, they couldn't "fix" it without scrapping the entire Shuttle system. Since that wasn't an option, NASA crossed its fingers and rolled the dice...again, and again, and again...until people died.

    Thermal protection materials are, by their very nature, fragile materials. So long as our space program relies on either thermal tiles or ablative shielding, that re-entry system must be protected from damage during launch and spaceflight. The only way we can do that (with existing technology) is to put the crew module above anything that's likely to produce debris. We had that on Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. We'll have it again for Ares or whatever the next administration decides to fund after the Shuttle is thankfully and deservedly retired.

  • by BBandCMKRNL ( 1061768 ) on Wednesday December 31, 2008 @12:18PM (#26280957)

    And it was much harder to fly and land - so much so that it really "flies" more like a typical plane with its engine off.(read: like a brick).

    Excuse me, but a typical airplane flies quite well with its engine off and is nothing like a brick. A commercial aircraft ran out of fuel in flight over Canada and flew 20+ miles to safely land at an abandoned airstrip.

    A drastically lower weight, though, would also allow for a slightly slower speed. Likely closer to 2500-2800 F which would technically make the heat shielding a redundant safety feature, at least on the wings.(they would melt and distort, but wouldn't actually catch on fire.

    If the wings melt and distort, they cease to be 'wings' and would render the shuttle uncontrollable.

  • Re:dumbification (Score:2, Insightful)

    by prisoner-of-enigma ( 535770 ) on Wednesday December 31, 2008 @12:49PM (#26281327) Homepage

    I don't think there's any hard data to support that allegation. Solid-fuel rockets are much simpler and thus more reliable (in general), albeit less efficient, than liquid-fuelled rockets, which makes them good candidates for the first stage.

    With but one huge, glaring, ominous difference: solid-fueled rockets cannot be switched off or throttled once ignited, unlike liquid-fueled or solid/liquid hybrid designs. So, while solid boosters are simpler, they preclude any kind of escape system while they are firing. So, they're perfectly safe to use so long as they function perfectly, all the time, every time, for the entire duration of the launch. Such restrictions fly in the face of rationality.

    I'd rather have a slightly more failure-prone booster that allows me to actually escape the failure compared to a "safer" design that, if it fails, guarantees loss of vehicle, mission, and crew. Stuff is going to fail, so you'd be better off with a design than anticipates and allows for that failure rather than one that strives to eliminate the possibility of failure. The former is achievable; the latter is impossible.

Research is what I'm doing when I don't know what I'm doing. -- Wernher von Braun