Space shuttle breaks into flames over Texas, killing all 7 aboard


Debris from the space shuttle Columbia streaks across the sky over Tyler, Texas, Saturday, Feb. 1, 2003. Amateur photographer Dr. Scott Lieberman shot a series of photos showing the break-up of the space shuttle from his backyard in Tyler early Saturday. 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.

AP Photo/ Dr. Scott Lieberman
Published: Saturday, February 1, 2003 at 3:36 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 1, 2003 at 3:36 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.

"Columbia is lost; there are no survivors," President Bush announced to a stunned nation.

Bill Readdy, NASA's associate administrator for space flight and a former shuttle commander, said it was too early to speculate about what had destroyed Columbia. A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there was no immediate indication of terrorism.

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, his voice breaking at times, said Bush had talked to the families of the astronauts who had been waiting at Kennedy Space Center for the crew's return.

"We trust the prayers of the nation will be with them and with their families," O'Keefe said. "A more courageous group of people you could not have hoped to know than the families of these crew members, an extraordinary, extraordinary group of astronauts who gave their lives."

Neither he nor Readdy took reporters' questions.

The six Americans and one Israeli, that country's first astronaut, who were aboard Columbia were 16 minutes from landing when the shuttle broke apart. They had been expected to touch down in Florida at 9:16 a.m.

At 9 a.m., Mission Control abruptly 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.

The final radio transmission between Mission Control and the shuttle gave no indication of any trouble.

Mission Control radioed: "Columbia, Houston, we see your tire pressure messages and we did not copy your last."

Columbia's commander, Rick Husband, calmly responds: "Roger, buh ..."

Then the transmission goes silent for several seconds, followed by static.

Military satellites with infrared detectors recorded several flashes as Columbia broke apart, according to a defense official who spoke only on condition of anonymity. It was unclear whether those "spikes" of heat indicated an explosion, the burning of pieces of debris re-entering the atmosphere or something else.

Television footage showed a bright light followed by smoke plumes streaking through the sky. Debris appeared to break off into separate balls of light as it continued downward.

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."

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 from Houston.

At Kennedy Space Center, O'Keefe met with the astronauts' families. 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, traveling at 12,500 mph, when Mission Control lost all contact and tracking data. Readdy said the speed was equivalent to Mach 18, or 18 times the speed of sound.

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, 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 state of Israel and its citizens are as one at this difficult time," Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office said in a statement.

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

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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