Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Orbiter Crew Cabin Can be Improved!

I argued a couple of days ago that modest improvements to crew cabin heat shielding might protect astronauts long enough to survive a Columbia or Challenger-type accident in future and permit them to get to a low enough altitude to bail out on their own chutes. Well, guess what. I was right! This in the Houston Chronicle:

With a more robust design, Columbia's crew compartment might have given the shuttle's seven doomed astronauts a chance at survival, according to materials included in six volumes of documentation made public Tuesday by accident investigators.

The shuttle Columbia disintegrated just south of Dallas-Fort Worth on Feb. 1 at an altitude of more than 200,000 feet. The documents indicate that the crew compartment emerged from the main breakup intact before it was destroyed by aerodynamic heating and structural stresses.

Past NASA studies have shown that crew compartments could be retrofitted with shields and equipment that would allow the compartment to serve as an escape pod for astronauts. (my emphasis)

The crew compartment of the shuttle Challenger also emerged intact when that spacecraft exploded over the Atlantic Ocean on Jan. 28, 1986, 73 seconds after launch.

"Future crewed vehicles should incorporate the knowledge gained from the (Challenger) and (Columbia) mishaps in assessing the feasibility of designing vehicles that will provide for crew survival even in the face of a mishap that results in the loss of the vehicle," the investigative board wrote in a section titled "Crew Survivability."

That finding, incorporated in more than 2,300 pages, was listed as an "observation" and not included as a recommendation in its formal report. But it is likely to fuel debate among policy-makers over whether the remaining shuttles should be retrofitted before launches resume.

We have lost 14 astronauts in what were potentially survivable accidents. The crew of Challenger got to think about this all the way down to the ocean. The crew of Columbia had at least 30 seconds to think about it. Earth to NASA: FIX THIS!!!!

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