Nasa tape shows astronauts minutes before disaster

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The Independent US

A videotape salvaged from the wreckage of the space shuttle Columbia provides a final glimpse of the astronauts before the shuttle broke apart. They are seen putting on their gloves and can be heard casually chatting, unaware of the impending destruction.

A videotape salvaged from the wreckage of the space shuttle Columbia provides a final glimpse of the astronauts before the shuttle broke apart. They are seen putting on their gloves and can be heard casually chatting, unaware of the impending destruction.

Nasa, which plans to release copies to the media, said the video holds nothing of investigative value but will allow the public to see the astronauts and the inside of the shuttle minutes before the first sign of trouble.

Thirteen minutes of tape were preserved, an official said. The tape shows four of the seven crew members doing routine tasks as the shuttle zoomed over the Pacific Ocean on 1 February.

The tape ends four minutes after the start of Columbia's re-entry into the atmosphere, when it was flying normally. The first indication of trouble showed up in temperature monitors in the left landing-gear compartment four minutes after the tape had stopped running.

Commander Rick Husband, William McCool, a co-pilot, Kalpana Chawla, a flight engineer and India's first woman astronaut, and the astronaut Laurel Clark were on the flight deck and reportedly caught on camera. The three other astronauts were on the lower deck. The camera was mounted on the wall and moved by one of the crew; their voices can be heard clearly, the official said.

The tape is thought to have been recovered in Texas during the past week.

Members of the board investigating the disaster have known about the tape for several days but did not make it public because they wanted to give Nasa time to show it to the astronauts' families, the official said.

On Wednesday, Laura Brown, a spokeswoman for the board, said that at no stage did any of the investigators have a copy of the videotape. But the chairman, retired Navy Admiral Harold Gehman Jr was almost certainly discussing the contents of the tape with members of Congress during his day-long visit to Washington, she said.

All seven astronauts died as the shuttle broke apart during re-entry. The investigative board suspects a breach in the left wing allowed superheated gases to penetrate Columbia.

On Tuesday, the accident investigators said they wanted to know more about a mysterious object that almost certainly fell off the shuttle and was flying alongside the spacecraft during its second day in orbit.

The object orbiting near Columbia was never noticed during the flight. After the shuttle's destruction over Texas, just 16 minutes short of its planned landing in Florida, the Air Force Space Command began analysing radar data and noticed the object.

Initially, Nasa said it suspected the object might be frozen waste water dumped overboard or an orbiting piece of space junk that the shuttle happened to encounter.

Columbia had just gone through a big manoeuvre in orbit on 17 January, about 24 hours into its flight, when the object popped out of nowhere, a spokesman said. That suggests it could have broken loose from the shuttle during the manoeuvre. (AP)

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