- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Advocates of an escape system for the space shuttle crew have not had much leverage convincing NASA to give astronauts a better way to bail out of the spacecraft.

But the debate may be rekindled now that a member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board has disclosed that the seven-member shuttle crew lived about one minute after their final communication with NASA ground crews at Johnson Space Center in Houston Feb. 1.

If the crew lived longer than previously believed, it may bolster the argument of groups like the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, which advises the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, that shuttles should have escape systems.

“It raises some important questions,” said Howard McCurdy, an American University professor and NASA historian.

On Tuesday, an anonymous member of the investigation board said that the seven-member crew was alive after Col. Rick Husband’s final communication to Johnson Space Center at 8:59:28 a.m. Eastern Standard Time.

The information was first printed yesterday in the New York Times.

It appears power flowed to the data recorder until 9:00:18 because the device, stored in the crew compartment, continued to record readings from sensors throughout Columbia.

It also means the crew could have been alive until then.

“It doesn’t come as a surprise because the cabin is strong. It’s a reasonable assumption that it would stay together for some time,” said Sidney Gutierrez, an astronaut on shuttle missions in 1991 and 1994 and an advocate of a crew-escape system.

The crew cabin also stayed intact in 1986 when Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff. The astronauts aboard Challenger survived the explosion, but died when the compartment hit the Atlantic Ocean.

Columbia disintegrated during re-entry, but the strength of the crew cabin has raised the possibility that the crew could have lived if they had an escape system.

“This was, in my opinion, a survivable accident,” Mr. Gutierrez said.

NASA has used crew ejection seats before.

When Columbia first launched in 1981, commander John Young and pilot Robert Crippen were the only crew members aboard and both men sat in ejection seats.

The next three shuttle missions also had two-man crews, and both sat in ejection seats. On the fifth shuttle mission, also aboard Columbia, NASA increased the crew size to four. The ejection seats of the mission commander and pilot were disabled so the shuttle’s two mission specialists wouldn’t be abandoned in the event of an emergency.

Columbia’s ejection seats eventually were removed. Space shuttles Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour never had ejection seats.

After the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, NASA added an escape pole to the mid-deck of the shuttles and gave astronauts parachutes for low-orbit escape, NASA spokeswoman Eileen Hawley said.

It is not clear whether an ejection system would have helped the Columbia crew. The shuttle was at an altitude of about 200,000 feet when it began to fall apart, and it was moving at about 12,500 miles an hour.

One idea that has been discussed to make high-altitude escape possible is turning the crew compartment into an escape capsule that separates from the rest of the shuttle, Mr. McCurdy said.

NASA also could place an escape capsule in the cargo bay, Mr. Gutierrez said.

Michael Kostelnik, deputy associate administrator for the shuttle and space station, said at a press conference in March that he was skeptical about adding crew-escape systems to the shuttle fleet.

The new equipment would make the shuttles too heavy, he said.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board will not recommend in its final report next month whether NASA should include a crew-escape system. Investigators have said that is a policy issue for Congress and the space agency to decide.

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