As we all know, the crew didn’t survive the re-entry. But how much did they suffer? That question was asked to Captain Dan Burbank when he was here. He was directly involved in the recovery of the astronauts on the ground, so he had some very sad but interesting details.
As the shuttle entered the atmosphere the speed was so furious that at the flaw point of the wing, an “anaconda of 5000 degree plasma started working its way through the shuttle’s interior.”
The first thing that went were a few temperature sensors. They spiked and then dropped to a zero reading fault. Next, some tire pressure sensors went nuts and then dropped to a zero reading fault. At this point the crew was probably concerned, but not very concerned. During this time the automatic adjustment of the shuttle was furiously trying to correct for the fact that one wing was failing. Since most of the shuttle’s wing structure is aluminum which gets some play at a mere 400 degrees Fahrenheit, it was getting bad fast. Within a few minutes the wing probably failed completely. Once that happened the shuttle tumbled and broke apart. Just like the challenger, the crew cabin broke off from the rest of the shuttle.
Captain Burbank told us that there was evidence that both of the astronauts in the front of the shuttle had grabbed their joysticks to try and control the shuttle. It’s clear that they new something was very wrong. Mercifully, the crew had the visors on their space helmets up. That means that as soon as the shuttle cracked, the air was pulled out of the cabin and they would have been knocked out. One can presume that there was likely some panic, but hopefully it was short. Had their visors been down, the space suits would have protected them from the pressure change etc. and they would have suffered much more from the heat and fall.
The failure of Columbia is a tragic story, but it’s one from which we can learn a lot. We asked Captain Burbank how safe space travel is now. He responded that it’s safer than it has ever been. Talking about failures, Dan said “We’re not a 1 in 10000 organization. We’re not a 1 in 1000 organization. I’d guess we’re about a 1 in 300 organization. Every time we launch, we’re still rolling the dice.”