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     NASA report details Columbia's last minutes

Houston, December 31st 2008, Tribune News Service

India-born Kalpana Chawla and six other astronauts of the ill-fated shuttle Columbia, who perished in one of the worst US space mishaps in 2003, had just 41 seconds of consciousness to respond to the impending disaster, according to a NASA report on the tragedy.

Narrating Columbia's final moments on February 1, the 400-page report said the astronauts were unaware that their re-entry was compromised.

The Columbia crew's first warning of trouble was a cabin alarm seconds earlier that signalled a problem with the shuttle's control jets. The astronauts had just 41 seconds of consciousness to respond. In a vain attempt to get the spaceship back on course, William McCool, the pilot, pushed several buttons on a control panel and tried to restart systems as the vessel, with its heat-shield shattered, violently spun, pitched and rolled some 2,00,000 feet above Texas, a little north of Dallas. The compartment housing the astronauts broke apart over a 24-second period as it plummeted to 1,05,000 feet.

Things happened so fast that none of the crew was able to close the visor of his/her helmet - one astronaut was not even wearing one, the report said.

They succumbed to violent trauma as the crew compartment snapped away from the shuttle's body, and the life-sustaining oxygen inside rushed out through small but growing breaches in the walls above and below them. The violence inside the fractured ship tore the astronauts from their seat belts and slammed their heads around in their helmets with a lethal force.

The air escaped so rapidly that the astronauts were unable to close the helmets' visors in time to remain conscious, Houston Chronicle reported.

The crew performed courageously, trying to problem-solve their way to safety. But the accident was not survivable, NASA's Spacecraft Crew Survival Investigative Team said.

Apart from Chawla and McColl, Columbia's crew members were Rick Husband, Mike Anderson, David Brown, Laurel Clark and Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon.

NASA had started the investigation into the fate of the astronauts within weeks of the crash at the request of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

The full NASA report can be found here


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