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NASA gives final conclusions on Columbia disaster

NASA has published its final report on the 2003 accident of the Columbia space shuttle, which cost the lives of the seven astronauts on board. The agency has addressed security issues and made recommendations to avoid any further incidents.

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REUTERS - There was no way the crew of the space shuttle Columbia could have survived the loss of their ship, but a NASA report aimed at making future accidents more survivable revealed on Tuesday that their safety harnesses and helmets had failed.

Columbia's seven astronauts survived the initial breakup of their ship and the crew cabin separated from the rest of the craft.

But the crew faced a series of fatal problems, including shoulder harnesses that failed, helmets that didn't protect their heads and a parachute landing system that needed the crew conscious for manual operation, according to the report about the 2003 U.S. space disaster.

Even if the safety gear had worked, the astronauts would have died due to the winds, shock waves and other extreme conditions in the upper atmosphere.

So concludes a 400-page Columbia Crew Survival Investigation Report, commissioned by NASA in an attempt to boil down the lessons learned from the tragedy so they can be incorporated in better equipment and techniques for future programs.

"Clearly the accident was not survivable under any circumstances, but (the report) will probably help for designing things for future spacecraft -- and maybe even aircraft," said David Mould, NASA's assistant administrator for public affairs.

The analysis is NASA's most complete telling to date of the final minutes of the shuttle mission known as STS-107, which lifted off on Jan. 16, 2003, for a 16-day microgravity research mission that included, for the first time, an Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon.

He and his six crewmates -- commander Rick Husband, pilot William McCool and astronauts Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla and Laurel Clark -- died aboard Columbia as the shuttle flew back toward the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for landing after what had been widely regarded as a successful and fairly glitch-free mission.

Unbeknownst to the astronauts or NASA, the shuttle had been critically damaged by a piece of foam debris that fell off its fuel tank during liftoff. The breach allowed superheated atmospheric gases to blast inside one of the wings during the high-speed glide back to Earth, melting the structure from the inside.

Much of what is in the report was discovered by the Columbia accident investigation team, which released a series of findings and recommendations. The panel advised retiring the space shuttles as soon as NASA finishes using them to complete construction of the International Space Station, a $100 billion project of 16 partner countries that has been under way for more than a decade.

Since the accident, NASA has flown 11 shuttle missions and has nine left in its schedule. A 10th mission to fly a physics experiment to the space station is under consideration.

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