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NASA gives crew safety tips after detailing Columbia tragedy

Columbia soars one last time
by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) Dec 30, 2008
NASA Tuesday recommended additional shuttle safety measures to improve crew survival rates during an accident, in a final report on the 2003 Columbia tragedy that killed seven astronauts.

After a highly detailed description of the final moments of the seven astronauts when Columbia disintegrated as it reentered the atmosphere, NASA concluded that their safety belts, space suits and helmets did not work as well as expected.

In its report, NASA admitted it could not clearly determine whether the astronauts were dead or unconscious due to the sudden decompression of the cabin before the shuttle lost control of reentry and broke into pieces.

The report said "the seat inertial reel mechanisms on the crews' shoulder harnesses did not lock ... As a result, the unconscious or deceased crew was exposed to cyclical rotational motion while restrained only at the lower body.

"Crew helmets do not conform to the head. Consequently, lethal trauma occurred to the unconscious or deceased crew due to the lack of upper body support and restraint."

"Crew survival suits should be evaluated as an integrated system to determine the various weak points -- thermal, pressure, windblast, chemical exposure," the report recommended, and "alternatives should be explored to strengthen the weak areas."

The report also recommended that the parachutes shuttle crews wear during takeoff and descent should deploy automatically. They currently deploy manually.

Columbia was destroyed on February 1, 2003 after damage to the left wing, where a piece of the thermal shield had been gouged by a chunk of insulation that broke off from the shuttle's external fuel tank during takeoff.

NASA's fleet of three remaining shuttles was grounded for two years after the accident, while the shuttle's safety features were improved and rigorous inspection procedures of the thermal shield when the shuttle is airborne were adopted.

The Columbia tragedy was the second shuttle accident since the program was launched in 1981. The Challenger shuttle blew up 73 seconds after liftoff, killing seven astronauts on board on January 28, 1986.

The three remaining shuttles -- Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour -- are due to make eight more flights to the orbiting International Space Station to finish construction and carry out the last maintenance mission on the Hubble Space Telescope.

The fleet is due to be retired in 2010, after 30 years of service.

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NASA seeks space shuttle display ideas
Washington (UPI) Dec 20, 2008
The U.S. space agency is seeking ideas from schools and science museums for the eventual public display of space shuttle orbiters and other equipment.

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