Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Voice of the Dead

Around noon on February 1, 2003 I was driving my son home from a yearly special event his school district holds for gifted and talented students. I'd spent the morning quietly reading in the van while he enjoyed several mini-seminars for 4th graders, including one on model rocketry. Once it was over, I picked him up and he excitedly told me about all the fun he'd had.

As we neared the Interstate I began to notice that all the flags were flying at half mast.

"Look at that," I said, pointing this out to him. "I wonder what's happened."

"Maybe it's another terrorist attack," he said. I turned on the radio expecting either that or an assassination.

Instead, they were reporting that one of the Space Shuttles -- the Columbia -- had disintegrated in the air over Nacogdoches, just 140 miles north of us. My brother and his family lived there. Later, his daughter told me how she had been downtown when, though the sky was clear, it sounded as though it had begun to rain. Small bits of debris were tapping against a store awning. A chunk of metal landed in the street, a few yards away.

As the days went by we slowly heard that the astronaut's bodies were being discovered, most out in the thick east Texas woods normally frequented only by hunters. In their first report on the disaster issued that August, NASA didn't go much into the actual deaths of the astronauts. It was obvious they couldn't have survived and the agency contented themselves with assuring us that sudden depressurization had probably kept the crew from suffering.

Now, almost 6 years later, NASA has issued a second Columbia Crew Survival Investigation Report that goes much more -- sometimes graphically more -- into their final minutes. The most disturbing portions have been "redacted" from the public version of the new report. Still, we now know that for 26 seconds after the master alarm sounded, the Commander and Pilot were busy trying to deal with the crisis. We also know that it took 41 seconds for the cabin to depressurize -- not quite instantaneous. But thankfully this means the crew was either mercifully unconcious or dead before the cockpit was ripped apart.

According to the report's introduction, this study was done to cull information from this disaster that can be used to make future spacecraft, like the Orion and Altair moon vehicles, more "survivable." Of course the Orion has 2 huge advantages over the Shuttle: first, it will ride on top of its rocket like the Apollo capsules of old, preventing pieces of debris from falling off and hitting it. Second, also like Apollo, Orion will have an escape rocket to pull it to safety if a catastrophic failure occurs during launch. That wouldn't help during re-entry, where Columbia was when disaster struck, but it certainly could in a situation like the one that destroyed the Challenger in the 1980's. According to Dr. Jonathan Clark, a former NASA flight surgeon who's wife died on Columbia, some of the lessons in this report are already being applied to to the next generation of spacecraft.


Kalypso said...

Interesting post, as well as the previous posts. Very educational blog. I am lucky to have stumbled across it, and I look forward to future posts. Good luck blogging!

Pleonic said...

Thanks! I appreciate your comment.

Anonymous said...

I was recently driving through Nacogdoches, delivering a car, and as I turned onto US 59 in town, on the MP3 player came the piece from "Jesus Christ Superstar" called John 19:41.
While I am a devout atheist, I admit I became emotional and had to take a moment to recall the gallant spacefarers, and the thousands who supported them and who investigated the tragedy.
May they rest in peace!