WASHINGTON - When the first of many loud alarms sounded on the space shuttle Columbia, the seven astronauts had about a minute to live, though they didn't know it.
The pilot, William McCool, pushed several buttons trying to right the ship as it tumbled out of control while heading home Feb. 1, 2003. He didn't know it was futile. Most of the crew were following NASA procedures, spending more time preparing the shuttle than themselves for the return to Earth.
Some weren't wearing their bulky protective gloves and still had their helmet visors open. Some weren't fully strapped in. One was barely seated.
In seconds, the darkened module holding the crew lost pressure. The astronauts blacked out. If the loss of pressure didn't kill them immediately, they would be dead from violent gyrations that knocked them about the ship.
In short, Columbia's astronauts were quickly doomed.
A new NASA report released yesterday details the chaotic final minutes of Columbia, which disintegrated over Texas upon reentry to Earth's atmosphere. The point of the 400-page analysis is to figure out how to make NASA's next spaceship more survivable. The report targeted problems with the space suits, restraints and helmets of the Columbia crew.
Many of the details about the astronauts' deaths have been known - they died either from lack of oxygen during pressure loss, or from hitting something as their spacecraft tumbled and broke up. But the report paints a more detailed picture of the crew's final moments than did the broader investigation into the accident five years ago.
Astronaut Pam Melroy, deputy study chief, said the analysis showed that the crew members were at their problem-solving best trying to recover Columbia, which was starting to crack up as it reentered Earth's atmosphere with a hole in its left wing, damage that had occurred at liftoff.
"There was no way for them to know that it was going to be impossible," Melroy said.
The crew had lost control of the motion and direction of the craft. It was pitching end-over-end, the cabin lights were out, and parts of the shuttle behind the crew compartment - including its wings - were falling off.
"It was a very disorienting motion going on," Wayne Hale, NASA's deputy associate administrator, said in a conference call. "There were a number of alarms going off simultaneously. The crew was trying very hard to regain control. We're talking about a brief time in a crisis situation."
The NASA study team is recommending 30 changes based on Columbia, many of them aimed at the space suits, helmets and seat belts for both the shuttle and the next space capsule NASA is building.
Since the accident, NASA has quietly made astronauts put more priority on getting their protective suits on, Melroy said.
NASA's suits don't automatically pressurize, "a basic problem of suit design," Hale said, "and it is one we intend to fix with future spacecraft."
Had Columbia's astronauts had time to get on their gear and get their suits pressurized, they might have lived longer and been able to take more actions. But they still would not have survived, the report notes.
The report lists events that were each potentially lethal to the crew: loss of cabin pressure just before or as the cabin broke up; crew members, unconscious or already dead, crashing into objects in the module; exposure to a near vacuum at 100,000 feet; and crashing to the ground.
Killed in the Columbia disaster along with pilot McCool, 41, were commander Rick Husband, 45; payload commander Michael Anderson, 43; David Brown, 46; Kalpana Chawla, 41; Laurel Clark, 41, and Israel's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, 48.
Columbia was the second shuttle NASA lost. The hole in its wing was caused when a piece of foam insulation broke off the fuel tank and slammed into the wing at launch. In 1986, the shuttle Challenger blew up shortly after liftoff, also killing all seven astronauts on board.
Investigators in both accidents pointed to a NASA culture of ignoring problems that later turned fatal.
Jonathan Clark, a former NASA flight surgeon and the husband of Laurel Clark, praised NASA's leadership for yesterday's report, "even though it says, in some ways, you guys didn't do a great job."
Clark, a member of the team that wrote the report, said "there were so many forces" that didn't want to produce it because it would again put the astronauts' families in the media spotlight.
Some of the recommendations are already are being applied to the next-generation spaceship being designed to take astronauts to the moon and Mars, said Clark, who now works for the National Space Biomedical Research Institute at Baylor College of Medicine.
Kirstie McCool Chadwick, the sister of William McCool, said that a copy of the report arrived at her Florida home yesterday but that she had not read it.
"We've moved on," Chadwick said. "I'll read it. But it's private. It's our business."
NASA held the report until after Christmas at the request of the families.
John Logsdon, a member of the original Columbia accident investigation board, questioned the need for the report, saying: "Those people are dead. Knowing in specifics how they died should be a private matter."
But for friends of the astronauts working on the investigation, Melroy said, confirming that the crew didn't suffer much "is a very small blessing."
Read the Columbia Crew Survival Investigation