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NASA Targets Problems To Make Space Travel Safer


NASA has released a comprehensive study of what happened to seven astronauts killed when the shuttle Columbia broke-up in 2003. The hope is this report will lead to improve safety on future mission. NPR's Richard Harris has the story.

RICHARD HARRIS: Nothing could have saved the astronauts who died aboard the space shuttle Columbia on February 1st, 2003. The shuttle's wing had been punctured by debris during lift-off, and once it broke-up high over Texas at speeds of over 10,000 miles per hour, there was no hope for the seven astronauts on board. Even so, NASA decided to use the accident as an opportunity to look for ways to improve astronaut safety. The 400 page report identifies 30 recommendations that could help in a less catastrophic accident. For example, space helmets are currently designed only to help astronauts breath, but they could also offer head protection. In a telephoned press briefing NASA official William Hale said: The study has already led NASA to improve the seat belts on the remaining shuttles.

Mr. WILLIAM HALE (Official, NASA): And that is a huge, I think safety improvement. Again, one that would not have made any ultimate difference in the Columbia accident, but one that in a less severe circumstance could save lives.

HARRIS: More safety equipment should also be designed to operate automatically. For example, parachutes that don't require an astronaut to pull the rip cord. Hale says: NASA made the report public to help spacecraft designers around the world and for the future.

Mr. HALE: These hard lessons need to be preserved. We have done that with this report, and we will certainly do our level best to teach it to the new generation of engineers as they come forward to design a future spacecraft.

HARRIS: That includes private companies as well as designers in other parts of the world. Richard Harris. NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.