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Last moments

In an orange suit with the reflective visor shut tight, Kalpana Chawla was sitting on the flight deck behind the pilots when Columbia exploded.

Recreating what could have happened inside the shuttle, experts said there was no way the astronauts could have bailed out. “You can’t do anything. At that point it was in a ferocious cloud of ionised gas. The reason it was visible on television was because it was travelling in a fireball,” Dr Kim Prisk, a pulmonary physiologist, said. Prisk was monitoring the effects of space travel on the astronauts and was waiting in Florida on Saturday to examine them.

“I can only imagine that death would have been rapid. I certainly hope so,” he added.

Prisk said the heat and pressure in the craft were so extraordinary that consciousness would have been impossible.

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