| Kalpana Chawla on the flight deck of the space shuttle Columbia during re-entry over the Pacific Ocean. (AFP)
Washington, March 1 (Reuters): Astronaut-made video of shuttle Columbia’s last normal moments shows relaxed crew-members donning pressure gloves, feeling the build-up of gravity and marvelling at the glow of super-hot gas seen through the doomed craft’s window.
“It’s really neat, it’s a bright orange-yellow all over the nose,” one astronaut is heard saying on the 13-minute videotape, released yesterday by Nasa.
The astronaut was referring to plasma, or super-heated gas, that normally envelops space shuttles as they re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. The video broke off about 11 minutes before mission controllers in Houston lost contact with the craft on February 1.
“I want to get my gloves on before the G’s build,” said another, referring to the return to gravity after a flight of near-weightlessness. “We’re getting some G’s — let go of the card and it falls,” said a third.
The astronauts were in their orange space suits and in various stages of putting on their gloves as the shuttle streaked toward Cape Canaveral at an altitude of about 152,400 metres.
They wore their helmets with the visors up, so that their faces could be seen, and were paging through checklist booklets and performing routine tasks of re-entry.
“It’s like a lot of the footage you see for every other flight and that’s the part that’s most emotional about it,” said NASA chief Sean O'Keefe.
“There is not even a hint of concern, anxiety, nothing ... It’s a very emotional piece because of what you already know, and that they don’t,” O’Keefe told reporters at Nasa headquarters before public release of the video.
The tape, which was shown earlier to the astronauts’ families, was recovered near Palestine, Texas, on February 6. As O’Keefe noted, such cabin videos are normally made on shuttle flights.
The astronauts’ appreciation of the plasma outside the orbiter took on a certain weight, because independent investigators have said the extreme heat observed on Columbia’s left side during its fatal re-entry might have been caused by hot plasma penetrating the craft’s wheel well.
The video was shot by a small onboard camera mounted to the right of pilot Willie McCool, who at one point removed the camera and handed it to Laura Clark. McCool, Clark, shuttle commander Rick Husband and Kalpana Chawla are the only ones visible on the tape, which was made in the ship’s flight deck. The three other astronauts — Mike Anderson, Dave Brown and Ilan Ramon — were in Columbia’s mid-deck during re-entry, Nasa said.
O’Keefe bridled at the notion there was nothing Nasa could have done if officials had been able to identify a possible problem during Columbia’s flight, before re-entry.