MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Today NASA released its final study of the Columbia space shuttle accident. In February 2003, the shuttle broke up high above the earth killing all seven astronauts aboard. The focus of this investigation is not what caused the accident, that's already known, but what NASA can learn to improve astronaut safety. And joining us to talk about the report is NPR's Richard Harris. Hey, Richard.
RICHARD HARRIS: Hi, Melissa.
BLOCK: First, is there any suggestion in this report that the crew of Columbia could have survived the accident if the shuttle had better safety features?
HARRIS: No, absolutely not. The Columbia, you may recall, broke up when it was very, very high at a very thin atmosphere. It was traveling at well over 10,000 miles an hour. The crew blacked out and died extremely rapidly, then the shuttle broke up. There's just no indication that this could be a survivable accident.
BLOCK: And again, as we said, the purpose here was to just figure whether there were ways to improve astronaut safety in the future.
HARRIS: That's exactly right. And this came about actually out of - grew out of the original Columbia accident investigation which happened in 2003. That investigation determined what actually caused the accident. You may recall a piece of foam fell off the external tank while the shuttle was blasting off, and it poked a hole in the shuttle's wing. And when the shuttle started to come back in, hot gases came in to the wing, essentially destroyed the wing, and destroyed the shuttle rather rapidly.
In the course of that investigation, one thing that this group said was, well, what else can we do here? And what they suggested was that NASA do something that it actually had never done before, surprisingly enough, which is to conduct an in-depth crew survival study of a space flight accident. Usually you figure out what's wrong with the hardware, and you sort of gloss over the - those more personal parts and sensitive issues. But NASA went ahead and did it, they've been working on it since 2004 and they finally have some results here.
BLOCK: Yeah, it's a huge report I've been looking through with a ton of detail. What were some of the shortcomings that NASA identified with the safety systems on the shuttle?
HARRIS: Yeah, 400 pages, and they came out with about 30 recommendations in all. And just to give you a flavor of what they were, they said, for example, not enough safety features are automated. For example, the parachutes only work if you pull the rip cord, and the seat belts didn't engage automatically which - so the astronauts were not really as secured as they wanted during the time that the shuttle started to tumble and so on. Visors were open. Some of the astronauts' gloves were off, they had to be off in order to operate the controls.
And so they were doing what they were supposed to do, but it was not optimal for safety. And one thing that I noticed was that the helmets were designed really only to provide oxygen and not to provide head protection. And so that was one thing NASA underlined is something we can do better with helmets.
BLOCK: What will NASA do with this information?
HARRIS: Well, they've already made some fixes to the space shuttle, and - like they have improved the seat belts there. But mostly, they're planning to use the information as they go ahead and design the next generation of spaceship that's supposed to replace this shuttle, and also really wanted to make it public so that other foreign countries that are starting to send people into space or continuing to send people into space can do that. And also commercial folks who are interested in getting into the man space business have some, you know, ideas about how to make it safer.
BLOCK: Richard, one result from the original Columbia accident investigation was that the space shuttle fleet is supposed to retire at the end of 2010. Is that still the plan?
HARRIS: That's still officially the plan, but we will have to see what happens when the incoming Obama administration takes the helm. NASA is in a state of uncertainty right now. And one of the problems with maintaining the space shuttle is there will actually be a long gap if it's retired at the end of the 2010 before the replacement comes along, so one of the many, many options being considered is actually to keep flying the space shuttle for a few more years, just one possibility at any rate.
BLOCK: OK. NPR's Richard Harris, thanks so much.
HARRIS: My pleasure.