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Columbia’s final readings deciphered

Data analysis sheds new light on problems before breakup


Feb. 20 — The final seconds of flight data from the space shuttle Columbia, transmitted even after contact was lost with Mission Control, indicate that the crew members were likely aware they were in serious trouble, NBC News reported Thursday.

FOR SEVERAL DAYS now, experts at NASA’s Johnson Space Center have been immersed in the highly complex process of reconstructing 32 seconds of data that were recorded by computers in White Sands, N.M., but not displayed on the computer monitors in Mission Control.

The data represent the final transmissions from Columbia, which broke up over Texas on Feb. 1, killing all seven astronauts aboard. The remaining three shuttles of NASA’s fleet have been grounded during the investigation of the tragedy.

Investigators have said Columbia’s final readings, transmitted as the shuttle was descending toward a landing in Florida, were so corrupted that NASA’s communication system kept them from being displayed at Mission Control. However, new analysis techniques have been used to interpret some of the corrupted data, NBC space analyst James Oberg reported.

Bits of the data show a leak in the shuttle’s Reaction Control System, said Oberg, citing sources within NASA’s shuttle program who did not wish to be identified. This system controls a series of small thrusters that were firing furiously in an attempt to stabilize the orbiter.

Oberg, a former Mission Control engineer, said other readings indicate a pressure drop in the left wing’s hydraulic system.

Such a scenario would have set off audible alarms in the crew compartment. The last readable part of the White Sands data indicates that Columbia’s autopilot was still functioning, Oberg reported, which means the onboard computers were still operating at that point.

The corrupted data, which is still being analyzed, show no indication so far of any voice communication from the crew in the final 32 seconds, he said. The data would support the prevailing view that Columbia’s troubles began with a breach on the shuttle’s left side, but they do not pinpoint the cause of the failure.


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