Orion Program Drawing On Columbia Report

Dec 31, 2008
By Jefferson Morris

NASA's Orion program is drawing on the findings of a special commission formed to study the final moments of the space shuttle Columbia crew in an attempt to improve the chances of future crews surviving emergencies.

The Spacecraft Crew Survival Integrated Investigation Team began its work in the fall of 2004, but its final report was slowed in part because members didn't want to delay communicating their findings to the Orion and space shuttle programs, according to Pam Melroy, the investigation team's deputy project manager and a three-time shuttle astronaut.

While no safety system could have saved the astronauts after the crew compartment disintegrated, the report makes key recommendations concerning spacesuit and vehicle seat design. The investigation team spent has considerable time talking to suit and seat designers on the Orion program, who have "really embraced the findings of the report and are working very hard to come up with ... a design that integrates the seats and the suits into the spacecraft in more ways," Melroy said during a press conference Dec. 30. "We're really pleased with the work that they're doing."

As Columbia entered the atmosphere on Feb. 1, 2003, the astronauts were wearing their ACES (Advanced Crew Escape System) pressure suits, but one astronaut wasn't wearing a helmet, and those who were had their visors up, as per usual procedures. Some also weren't wearing their gloves, which inhibit many normal crew tasks.

After the orbiter went out of control as a result of damage to the leading edge of its left wing, the crew had about 40 seconds to react before the cabin depressurized and they lost consciousness, according to the report.

In accordance with their training, they spent that time trying to regain control of the orbiter, rather than sealing up their suits. "The crew was doing everything that they had been trained to do, and they were doing everything right," Melroy said during a press conference Dec. 30.

However, the report says, "once the cabin depressurization began, the rate of depressurization incapacitated the crew so quickly that even those crew members who had fully donned the ACES did not have time to lower their visors."

According to the report, the inertial reel mechanisms in the astronauts' shoulder harnesses - which function like those on automobile seat belts - also failed to lock, leaving their upper bodies unrestrained. The rotation of the shuttle's detached forebody resulted in lethal blunt trauma to the crew, who by that point were either unconscious or already dead.

"Future spacecraft seats and suits should be integrated to ensure proper restraint of the crew in off-nominal situations while not affecting operational performance," the report says. "Future crewed spacecraft vehicle design should account for vehicle loss of control to maximize the probability of crew survival."

That reel system has since been redesigned, according to Wayne Hale, former shuttle program manager. "That is a huge, I think, safety improvement," he says.

While the air revitalization system for the ACES suits required manual activation, the Orion suit systems will be automated, according to Jeff Hanley, Constellation program manager.

The report is available at www.nasa.gov/reports.

Columbia space shuttle photo: NASA

Aviation Week

◄ Share this news!

Bookmark and Share


The Manhattan Reporter

Recently Added

Recently Commented