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Shuttle Disaster

Minutes before disaster, smiles from astronauts

©Associated Press

March 1, 2003

SPACE CENTER, Houston -- 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 are believed to have penetrated the left wing, leading to their deaths.

The videocassette shown on NASA TV on Friday was found three weeks ago in East Texas. Among the more than 250 videos aboard Columbia, most of them to document scientific experiments, it was the only one recovered that had 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."

The tape ends a minute later -- and 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, astronaut Scott Altman said. He was commander of Columbia's previous mission, a year earlier, and is 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 their families waited.

The spaceship broke apart 38 miles 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 on Feb. 6 near Palestine in East Texas. It reveals nothing helpful to the investigation, NASA officials say.

But a second, unrelated video, prepared by the board investigating the shuttle accident, might shed more light on what happened, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said Friday. That video, which has not been released to the public, is a composite gathered from hundreds of still and video images from many sources showing the shuttle's last minutes of flight.

Nelson says he viewed it this week when Harold Gehman Jr., the retired admiral leading the inquiry, brought it to his office.

That tape showed "Columbia was shedding debris, and it was shedding it as it started across the continental United States," Nelson said.

But a spokeswoman for the Gehman board, Laura Brown, warned against overinterpreting the video evidence. "The first shedding debris that we're aware of, that we have video proof of, is shortly after the orbiter crosses into California," she said. "But that doesn't mean it's breaking up there, and it doesn't mean that the astronauts were aware that it was shedding debris."

The space agency acknowledged the existence of the first 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.

Columbia was traveling 18 times the speed of sound when it came apart. The fact that any video was preserved is "remarkable," said Charles Figley, director of the Traumatology Institute at Florida State University.

"Some might view it as a miracle," Figley said. "Suddenly here is a postcard of these men and women." He said the video should provide peace of mind for the astronauts' families, because it shows them happy and doing what they loved.

Administrator: NASA is capable of responding to in-flight emergencies

WASHINGTON -- NASA's top administrator, Sean O'Keefe, said Friday he rejects the idea that nothing could have been done in orbit to help the crippled space shuttle Columbia and possibly save its seven astronauts.

O'Keefe said NASA has a long history of responding to orbital emergencies and would have done so again had it been clear that Columbia was in trouble.

"To suggest that we would have done nothing is fallacious," O'Keefe said. "If there had been a clear indication, there would have been no end to the efforts."

-- Information from the New York Times was used in this report.

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