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Columbia crew cheerful on tape before disaster

The Associated Press

The video, found in a Texas field, ends 4 minutes before the breakup.

The Associated Press

SPACE CENTER, Houston – In the final minutes of their lives, Columbia’s astronauts were cheerful, at times lighthearted.

They helped one another in the cockpit, collecting empty drink bags and putting on their spacesuit gloves. The two women mugged for the camera. They remarked on the blast-furnace heat outside – mere minutes before the superheated gases were about to penetrate the left wing and lead to their deaths.

The videocassette shown on NASA TV yesterday was found three weeks ago in East Texas. Among the more than 250 videos aboard Columbia – most of them to document scientific experiments – it was the only one recovered that had any recording left.

“Looks like a blast furnace,” commander Rick Husband says, referring to the bright flashes outside the cockpit windows as Columbia re-entered the atmosphere above the Pacific on Feb. 1.

“Yep, we’re getting some G’s (gravity),” replies his co-pilot, William McCool. “Let go of the card, and it falls.”

“All right, we’re at 100th of a G,” Husband notes. McCool observes how bright it is outside and calls it amazing.

“Yeah, you definitely don’t want to be outside now,” Husband adds.

Says Laurel Clark, seated behind them: “What, like we did before?” drawing a big laugh.

The tape ends a minute later – and a full four minutes before the first sign of trouble. The camera almost certainly continued recording. But the rest of the tape was destroyed in the accident, leaving only the initial 13 minutes of tape to be recovered from the reel, said astronaut Scott Altman. He was commander of Columbia’s previous mission, a year earlier, and is also part of NASA’s investigation team.

The small digital camera was mounted at the front of the cockpit, to the right of McCool, who then handed it to Clark. She aimed it at Kalpana Chawla, the flight engineer seated next to her, and asked: “Can you look at the camera for a second? Look at me.” Chawla waves at the camera. Clark turns the camera around and smiles into it.

As Columbia started its descent through the atmosphere, Clark pointed the camera at the overhead window to show the bright orange and yellow flashes from the superheated gases surrounding the spaceship as it streaked toward a landing in Florida, where all of their families waited.

The space agency acknowledged the existence of the tape Tuesday but put off broadcasting it until yesterday, to make sure the astronauts’ families could see it first. Through a public relations firm, two of the widows declined to comment on the video; other relatives could not be reached.

The tape has a home-video quality to it, with the camera wobbly and pointed at times at the cockpit ceiling.

Video seen as comfort to crew’s relatives

The Associated Press

Unlike the frightening videos from previous disasters, yesterday’s images of the Columbia astronauts doing the routine tasks of the job they loved should be a comfort to their families and to the public, mental health experts said.

The video, recorded by a wall-mounted camera, is different from the now-familiar news footage of the orbiter disintegrating over Texas Feb. 1 in a maze of contrails. It records the final minutes of four of the astronauts – the other three are not on camera – before things went wrong.

While nothing can erase the knowledge of what is to come four minutes after the tape ends, researchers say the video can replace doubts and fears with tangible, comforting images.

The video was released on NASA TV with the approval of the astronauts’ families.

“It’s a positive image,” said psychiatrist Edward K. Rynearson of the Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle. He specializes in counseling relatives of victims who die violently.

“It’s not towers collapsing or blood on the sidewalk and yellow crime scene tape,” he said. “I don’t think the images will be directly associated with the way they died.”

“The video shows the astronauts in a happy light, being successful,” said Charles Figley, director of the Traumatology Institute at Florida State University. “It reinforces the idea that they died fairly quickly. It will provide additional peace of mind.”

John Salton, brother of astronaut Laurel Clark, said the video “was emotional in different ways. It was sad because it was their last moments, but on the other hand it was also really nice.”

“It was really obvious in the video that they were just an incredibly close group. It was like watching a family at the dinner table,” Salton said. “They were enjoying themselves.”

Researchers said the fact that the video was recovered at all could offer inspiration. NASA officials say it was found in Texas on Feb. 6 on open ground near the town of Palestine, southeast of Dallas.

“It is remarkable. Some might view it as a miracle,” Figley said. “Suddenly here is a postcard of these men and women.”

Rather than reopening emotional wounds, modern communications tools such as video can help survivors learn to move on by allowing them to hit replay, Figley suggested.

“Survivors can compartmentalize their grief with these reminders. It gives them a place to go,” he said. “Previous generations just had photo albums or letters.”

Rynearson cautioned that the astronauts’ families might avoid watching television for the next few days because viewing the video often or encountering it unexpectedly could be upsetting.

PHOTO CAPTIONS: The Associated Press

Pilot William McCool (foreground) and commander Rick Husband are captured in a video image from the final minutes of the Columbia mission. The videotape, which lasts 13 minutes, was found Feb. 6, mostly intact, in a Texas field. Some call it a “miracle” that it was found, a postcard from a crew that seemed as close and comfortable together as family.

Columbia astronaut Laurel Clark flashes a smile to the camera in this image taken from a videotape shot just minutes before the shuttle disintegrated over Texas. The tape was among the debris recovered Feb. 6 near Palestine, Texas.

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