Space: Those Last Few Seconds

Did Columbia's crew see trouble coming, or was the end mercifully fast? Answers are starting to emerge

Death comes quickly in space, unless it comes very slowly. The crew of the shuttle Challenger is thought--or hoped--to have suffered little. Crew members of Apollo 13, had they not made it home, would have needed days to breathe up all their air and suffocate. Ever since the crack-up of the shuttle Columbia last month, NASA has wanted to know how the astronauts on that doomed ship met their end--believing that the precise sequence of events on the crew decks would reveal a lot about the precise sequence of breakdowns throughout the ship.

Slowly, investigators are piecing together the answers. Space-agency...

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