The grim details about the last moments of the doomed crew emerged as NASA's administrator said the space agency should be able to recover from the Columbia accident and safely return the shuttle fleet to space within "six to nine months."
The Columbia Accident Investigation Board, whose final report is pending, believes a suitcase-sized piece of foam insulation peeled off during launch and struck Columbia's left wing, punching a hole in the heat shield.
When Columbia later returned to Earth on Feb. 1, the 3,000 degrees of re-entry heat entered and destroyed the left wing. The spacecraft came apart, scattering pieces over East Texas and Louisiana.
The accident killed the entire crew of Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool, Michael P. Anderson, David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Blair Salton Clark, and Ilan Ramon.
It now appears the astronauts may have lived beyond the moment mission control lost contact with the spacecraft, The New York Times reports.
The paper cites experts from NASA and the investigation board, who have been examining an on-board sensor recording system that kept working far into the shuttle's break-up.
Even as the left wing disintegrated, the shuttle's aft engine compartment, fuselage, right wing and crew cabin were essentially intact, reported CBS News space analyst Bill Harwood.
All three electricity-producing fuel cells were operating and the life support system appeared to be functioning normally, although the ship's cooling system had shut down.
Officials say the crew capsule would have been severely buffeted and the astronauts were aware of sensor readings showing major problems. There would have been nothing the astronauts could do to save the craft.
"How long the astronauts might have survived as the crew module plunged earthward will never be known," Harwood reports. "Sadly, they almost certainly had time to understand their fate.
The revelations mirror disturbing findings in the probe of the 1986 Challenger disaster. Despite initial reports that the astronauts died instantly, it was later deemed possible that some survived the entire descent of the doomed craft, dying only when the cabin smashed into the ocean surface.
The remaining three orbiters in the shuttle fleet — Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavour — have been grounded until the causes of the Columbia accident are determined and safety changes are made.
In a meeting with reporters Tuesday, NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe said that most of the issues to be addressed in the Columbia Accident Investigation Board report are known and that NASA is already taking action.
"There is nothing that we have seen so far that will preclude "a return to space "in six to nine months," O'Keefe said.
NASA engineers already are studying ways to make repairs in orbit if the space shuttle is damaged during launch. O'Keefe said engineers are also redesigning part of the space shuttle external fuel tank to assure that a large chunk of insulation will not fly off and hit the shuttle during launch, an event that is thought have brought down Columbia.
Referring to the insulation believed to have caused the accident, O'Keefe said: "There will not be bipod insulation on the next shuttle that flies, or on the ones after that. That is a guarantee."
The bipod insulation was to prevent ice formation caused by the chill of the liquid hydrogen and oxygen propellant. O'Keefe said that bipod insulation will be replaced by heaters.
O'Keefe acknowledged that more than half of the CAIB report will deal with management changes needed at NASA.
He said an independent engineering safety center at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. will have safety experts who will evaluate problems with the space shuttle and other NASA spacecraft and determine when it is unsafe to fly.
The watchdogs will be separate from the engineers who are part of specific programs within NASA and will be "removed" from the schedule and launch pressures of those programs. Yet, the safety experts will actively participate in key management meetings where launch decisions are made, said O'Keefe. The aim is to keep safety experts independent and reduce complacency about concerns that emerge.
CBS News Space Consultant William Harwood has covered America's space program full time for nearly 20 years, focusing on space shuttle operations, planetary exploration and astronomy. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood provides up-to-the-minute space reports for CBS News and regularly contributes to Spaceflight Now and The Washington Post.