Space Shuttle seen "breaking up" over Texas, no contact since 9:00 a.m.


Astronauts aboard Columbia's Spacehab astronaut David Brown, Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, commander Rick Husband, astronaut Kalpana Chawla, pilot William McCool, astronaut Michael Anderson, and astronaut Laurel Clark, foreground from left, wave to a television camera in this view Jan. 20, 2003. NASA lost communication with space shuttle Columbia as the ship soared over Texas several minutes before landing Saturday morning Feb. 1, 2003. It wasn't immediately clear if there was a problem with the shuttle. An apple is floating in the foreground.

AP Photo/NASA TV
Published: Saturday, February 1, 2003 at 9:58 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 1, 2003 at 9:58 a.m.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) - Space shuttle Columbia apparently disintegrated in flames over Texas on Saturday minutes before it was to land in Florida. TV video showed what appeared to be falling debris, as NASA declared an emergency and warned residents to beware of falling objects.

Six Americans and Israel's first astronaut were on board.

The shuttle was carrying the first Israeli astronaut and six Americans, and authorities had feared it would be a terrorist target.

Fifteen minutes after the expected landing time, and with no word from the shuttle, NASA announced that search and rescue teams were being mobilized in Dallas and Fort Worth areas.

Inside Mission Control, flight controller hovered in front of their computers, staring at the screens. The wives, husbands and children of the astronauts who had been waiting at the landing strip were gathered together by NASA and taken to separate place.

Columbia was at an altitude of 200,700 feet over north-central Texas at a 9 a.m., traveling at 12,500 mph when mission control lost contact and tracking data.

NASA, while not saying the shuttle had exploded, broken up or crashed, warned that any debris found in the area should be avoided and could be hazardous.

There were reports of debris seen falling.

In 42 years of human space flight, NASA has never lost a space crew during landing or the ride back to orbit. In 1986, space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff.

Security had been tight for the 16-day scientific research mission that included the first Israeli astronaut.

Ilan Ramon, a colonel in Israel's air force and former fighter pilot, 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 Jan. 16 launch, but also for its landing. Space agency officials feared his presence might make the shuttle more of a terrorist target.

On launch day, a piece of insulating foam on the external fuel tank came off during liftoff and was believed to have struck the left wing of the shuttle.

Leroy Cain, the lead flight director in Mission Control, had assured reporters Friday that engineers had concluded that any damage to the wing was considered minor and posed no safety hazard.

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