1 March 2003
NASA releases shuttle’s last video

Associated Press

13-minute tape shows routine operations but no sign of problems that caused breakup. Columbia pilot William McCool and commander Rick Husband prepare for re-entry on the shuttle's flight deck, in a video released by NASA on Friday. The 13-minute video ends before the start of trouble.

March 1 —  In the final minutes of their lives, Columbia’s astronauts were cheerful, at times lighthearted. They helped one another in the cockpit, collecting empty drink bags and putting on their spacesuit gloves. The two women mugged for the camera. They remarked on the blast-furnace heat outside — mere minutes before the superheated gases were about to penetrate the left wing and lead to their deaths.

THE RECORD of those moments was preserved on a videocassette found three weeks ago in East Texas, and shown by NASA on Friday. Among the more than 250 videos aboard Columbia — most of them to document scientific experiments — it was the only one recovered that had any recording left.

“Looks like a blast furnace,” commander Rick Husband says, referring to the bright flashes outside the cockpit windows as Columbia re-entered the atmosphere above the Pacific on Feb. 1.

“Yep, we’re getting some G’s (gravity),” replies his co-pilot, William McCool. “Let go of the card and it falls.”

“All right, we’re at 100th of a G,” Husband notes. McCool observes how bright it is outside and calls it amazing.

“Yeah, you definitely don’t want to be outside now,” Husband adds.

Says Laurel Clark, seated behind them: “What, like we did before?” drawing a big laugh.

The tape ends a minute later — and a full four minutes before the first sign of trouble.

The camera almost certainly continued recording. But the rest of the tape was destroyed in the accident, leaving only the initial 13 minutes of tape to be recovered from the reel, said astronaut Scott Altman. He was commander of Columbia’s previous mission, a year earlier, and is also part of NASA’s investigation team.


The small digital camera was mounted at the front of the cockpit, to the right of McCool, who then handed it to Clark. She aimed it at Kalpana Chawla, the flight engineer seated next to her, and asked: “Can you look at the camera for a second? Look at me.” Chawla waves at the camera. Clark turns the camera around and smiles into it.

As Columbia started its descent through the atmosphere, Clark pointed the camera at the overhead window to show the bright orange and yellow flashes from the superheated gases surrounding the spaceship as it streaked toward a landing in Florida, where all of their families waited.

The spaceship broke apart 38 miles (60 kilometers) above Texas, 16 minutes shy of touchdown. The accident investigation board suspects a break in the left wing let in the scorching air and led to the destruction of Columbia and the deaths of all seven astronauts. Investigators are trying to figure out what caused the breach.

Three of the astronauts were seated in the lower deck and are not on the tape: Michael Anderson, David Brown and Ilan Ramon, who became the first Israeli in space with Columbia’s launch on Jan. 16.

The tape was discovered five days after the disaster, on Feb. 6 near Palestine in East Texas. It was found on the ground, out in the open. It reveals nothing helpful to the investigation, NASA officials say.

The space agency acknowledged the existence of the tape Tuesday but put off broadcasting it until Friday, to make sure the astronauts’ families could see it first. Through a public relations firm, two of the widows declined to comment on the video; other relatives could not be reached.


The tape has a decided home video quality to it, with the camera wobbly and pointed at times at the cockpit ceiling.

Husband, a 45-year-old Air Force colonel and second-time space flier, is seen sipping from drink pouches and, along with McCool, putting on gloves. Everyone is in a bright orange flight suit, with a helmet on but the visor up.

Husband explains the bright images outside as Columbia zooms down through the atmosphere and gently reminds his crew to put on their gloves and check their suit pressures.

The video released Friday portrays a businesslike routine, yet eerie in retrospect: The images show flight-deck activity beginning around 8:35 a.m. ET as Columbia soared 500,000 feet (150 kilometers) above the south-central Pacific Ocean. It continues until 8:48 a.m., when the shuttle was over the eastern Pacific, southwest of San Francisco, at an altitude of about 250,000 feet (75 kilometers).

Four minutes later, the first signs of overheating appear. Another seven minutes later, Mission Control loses contact. And 32 seconds after that, all communication ends as the spaceship shatters over Texas.

It is evident by the video that none of the astronauts had a clue about what lay ahead. Earlier this week, NASA officials said Husband was notified about the tank debris that smacked into the left wing barely a minute after liftoff along with the results of an analysis concluding damage to the thermal tiles posed no safety threat.

He was said to be satisfied with the results.

Administrator Sean O’Keefe promised instead that over the next several days NASA will make changes so that professionals outside shuttle management would lead cooperative efforts with the investigating board. O’Keefe said reassigning managers would be viewed as prejudging whether they were culpable in Columbia’s loss, and he wrote, “I will not submit anyone to this treatment.”

The investigating board, led by retired Adm. Harold Gehman, disclosed the correspondence on its Web site Saturday. A board spokeswoman, Laura Brown, said Gehman interpreted O’Keefe’s promises as responsive to the board’s concerns. The board’s initial members, including Gehman, were appointed by O’Keefe.

Gehman wrote to O’Keefe on Tuesday asking him to remove top shuttle managers from managing or supporting the board’s investigation into the accident. “We believe it is in the best interest of these key people, NASA and the effective progress of the investigation if they were to be replaced by other knowledgeable people to manage the response and investigative support,” Gehman wrote.

In a strongly worded response sent Friday, O’Keefe wrote that he feared reassigning shuttle managers “will be viewed as prejudging the facts before the investigation is complete,” and that even replacements could suffer “the same appearance of conflict in the future.”

“Simply reassigning personnel will not accomplish your goal,” O’Keefe wrote.
O’Keefe’s response drew criticism from Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., a member of the House Science Committee, which has oversight responsibilities over NASA.

“If O’Keefe wanted to give the impression he was more interested in circling the wagons than exposing the truth, he’s done everything this week to do that,” Weiner said. “The more outsiders we have looking at this information without the interference or filter of what could be self-interested NASA employees, the better.

“Many Americans are concerned about having an information flow that is being directed at key points by the various people who may have been shown to have some responsibility for the accident or shown to have been decision-makers and not acting on subordinates’ warnings,” Weiner added.

A senior astronaut said the space shuttle may not fly for a year while NASA comes up with ways to repair damaged insulation tiles in orbit.

David Wolf, chief of the spacewalk team for the Astronaut Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, told the Houston Chronicle that an aggressive, top-notch team might be able to accomplish the task in a year or less.

Wolf told the newspaper the repair team met for the first time Thursday in Houston. The team aims to add the capability to fix damaged or missing tiles in orbit.


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