Space shuttle Columbia breaks into flames over Texas, killing all seven aboard


Published: Saturday, February 1, 2003 at 1:49 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 1, 2003 at 1:52 p.m.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) - Space shuttle Columbia broke apart in flames 200,000 feet over Texas on Saturday, killing all seven astronauts just minutes before they were to glide to a landing in Florida.

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A flag at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla., is lowered to half staff by space center security guards Bruce Forton, left, and Mike Orr, Saturday, Feb. 1, 2003 after the space shuttle Columbia broke apart in flames over Texas, killing all seven astronauts just 16 minutes before they were to glide to their landing strip in Florida.

AP Photo/Florida Today, Michael R. Brown

"Sadly, from the video that's available, it does not appear that there were any survivors," said Bill Readdy, NASA's associate administrator for space flight.

Readdy said it was too early to speculate about the exact cause. NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said the accident was not caused by anything or anyone on the ground.

O'Keefe said President Bush was speaking to the families of the astronauts.

"We trust the prayers of the nation will be with them and with their families. A more courageous group of people you could not have hoped to know," O'Keefe said.

The six Americans and Israel's first astronaut were 16 minutes from landing when the shuttle broke apart.

A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that there was no immediate indication of terrorism and no specific threats had been made against Columbia. The shuttle would have been out of range of a surface-to-air missile at the time, the official said.

Columbia had been expected to land at Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 9:16 a.m.

At 9 a.m., Mission Control suddenly lost all data and voice contact with the shuttle and crew. At the same time, residents of Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana reported hearing "a big bang" and seeing flames in the sky.

Television footage showed a bright light followed by smoke plumes streaking diagonally through the sky. Debris appeared to break off into separate balls of light as it continued downward. NASA declared an emergency after losing contact with the crew and within minutes said search teams had been sent to the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

In Nacogdoches, Texas, residents found bits of metal strewn across the city. Dentist Jeff Hancock said a metal bracket about a foot long had crashed through his office roof.

"It's all over Nacogdoches," said barber shop owner James Milford. "There are several little pieces, some parts of machinery ... there's been a lot of pieces about 3 feet wide."

Two hours after the shuttle had been expected to land, the giant screen at the front of Mission Control showed a map of the Southwest United States and what should have been Columbia's flight path. The U.S. flag next to the center's countdown clock was lowered to half-staff.

"A contingency for the space shuttle has been declared," Mission Control somberly repeated over and over.

In another room at Kennedy Space Center, O'Keefe meet with the astronauts' families, who had been waiting at the landing site for the shuttle's return, spokeswoman Melissa Motichek said. Six of the seven astronauts were married, and five of them had children.

NASA officials, meanwhile, warned people on the ground to stay away from any fallen shuttle debris. EPA spokesman Joe Martyak said he didn't know what toxic chemicals could be amid the debris because the shuttle can undergo reactions from the intense heat of reentry.

The shuttle flight was the 113th in the shuttle program's 22 years and the 28th flight for Columbia, NASA oldest shuttle.

In 42 years of U.S. human space flight, there had never been an accident during the descent to Earth or landing. On Jan. 28, 1986, space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff.

The shuttle is essentially a glider during the hour-long decent from orbit toward the landing strip. It is covered by about 20,000 thermal tiles to protect against temperatures as high as 3,000 degrees.

On Jan. 16, shortly after Columbia lifted off, a piece of insulating foam on its external fuel tank came off and was believed to have hit the left wing of the shuttle. Leroy Cain, the lead flight director in Mission Control, assured reporters Friday that engineers had concluded that any damage to the wing was considered minor and posed no safety hazard.

The shuttle was at an altitude of about 203,000 feet over north-central Texas at 9 a.m., traveling at 12,500 mph, when Mission Control lost all contact and tracking data.

Gary Hunziker in Plano, Texas, said he saw the shuttle flying overhead. "I could see two bright objects flying off each side of it," he told The Associated Press. "I just assumed they were chase jets."

"The barn started shaking and we ran out and started looking around," said Benjamin Laster of Kemp, Texas. "I saw a puff of vapor and smoke and saw big chunk of material fall."

Former astronaut John Glenn and his wife were watching on television at their home in Maryland.

"Anytime you lose contact like that, there's some big problem. Of course, once you went for several minutes without any contact, you knew something was terribly wrong," Glenn said.

The Columbia crew was relatively inexperienced. Only three of the seven had flown in space before: the shuttle's commander, Rick Husband, Michael Anderson, and Kalpana Chawla. The other four were rookies: pilot William McCool, David Brown, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon.

Security had been extraordinarily tight for their 16-day scientific research mission because of the presence of Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut.

Ramon, 48, a colonel in Israel's air force and former fighter pilot, had survived two wars. He became the first man from his country to fly in space, and his presence resulted in an increase in security, not only for Columbia's launch, but also for its planned landing. Space agency officials feared his presence might make the shuttle more of a terrorist target.

"The government of Israel and the people of Israel are praying together with the entire world for the safety of the astronauts on the shuttle Columbia," Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office said in a statement.

Dr. Yael Barr of the Israeli Aerospace Medicine Institute was waiting at the landing strip for the astronauts' return.

"When the countdown clock, when it got to zero and then started going, instead of counting down, counting up and they were still not there, I told my friend, 'I have a bad feeling. I think they are gone.' And I was in tears," Barr said.

Columbia's crew had completed 80-plus scientific research experiments during their time in orbit.

Just in the past week, NASA observed the anniversary of its only two other space tragedies, the Challenger explosion, which killed all seven astronauts on board, and the Apollo spacecraft fire that killed three on Jan. 27, 1967.

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