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As the U.S. and much of the world mourns the loss of seven astronauts killed aboard space shuttle Columbia, NASA’s search for the “smoking gun” cause of the disintegration is already under way, and President Bush vows to continue America’s leadership in space exploration.

“The Columbia is lost. There are no survivors,” the president told the nation.

“The cause in which they died will continue. Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand. Our journey into space will go on.”

Nearly 17 years to the day after the Challenger explosion, Columbia – the first in the orbiter fleet to be sent into space – broke up upon descent over central Texas at 9 a.m. Eastern time, minutes before a scheduled landing at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.

“This is indeed a tragic day for the NASA family, for the families of the astronauts, and likewise for the nation,” NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe said.

Flags at the countdown clock at Cape Canaveral, the Capitol in Washington, D.C., and the White House have been lowered to half-staff.

NASA declared an emergency after losing all contact with the space shuttle Columbia sixteen minutes before it was due to land at 9:16 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. It was at an altitude of 200,700 feet at the time, traveling at 12,500 mph.


Falling space shuttle debris (Photo: nbc5i.com)

The final transmission between Mission Control and Columbia gave little indication there was any problem:

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

Columbia: “Roger, uh, …” [transmission breaks off after the crew member starts to stay a word begining with the sound "buh".]

Video images obtained by KXAS-TV in Dallas showed the shuttle descending at a severe trajectory and disintegrating as it plummeted to Earth.

‘Big bang’ then ‘fireball’

There were reports of an explosion to local law enforcement officials all over Texas.

Witnesses said they heard a “big bang” at approximately 9:00 a.m. Eastern and windows shook in buildings.

“I watched the shuttle blow up while it came over Texas,” witness Daniel Lee Schinzing told WorldNetDaily. “My family was outside watching it come over and pieces started coming from it!”

Schinzing is a resident of Cleburne, Texas, about 30 miles south of Fort Worth.

“It was really bright. We saw two dots side by side … two streaks coming across [the sky],” Schinzing explained. “It was right over top of our driveway, almost.”

Schinzing says what he saw was “a real fireball, with a big silver streak. The extra pieces looked like they were burning up.”


Columbia’s flight path toward intended landing at Kennedy Space Center (NASA TV/Space.com)

Recovering debris

Search and rescue teams in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and in portions of East Texas were alerted. Crews were dispatched to the town of Palestine, southwest of Waco, which is the presumed point of impact, reports KXAS-TV.

Pieces of debris as large as eight feet have been reported found in four states and over the Gulf of Mexico.

“It’s all over Nacogdoches [Texas],” barber shop owner James Milford told KXAS-TV. “There are several little pieces, some parts of machinery … there’s been a lot of pieces about three-feet wide.”

“Any persons in those areas … should avoid any debris associated with the shuttle’s contingency. It may be hazardous and toxic,” NASA officials warned and urged anyone finding debris should report it to the local law enforcement agencies.

NBC’s veteran space correspondent Jay Barbree warned the public not to go near the debris for health reasons. He says breathing in hazardous fumes could be fatal.

“It will form a membrane over the oxygen sacks in your lungs. You could suffocate to death within 48 hours,” he said.

Columbia’s crew


Crew of STS-107 (NASA photo)

On board Columbia were Commander Rick Husband, 45, an Air Force colonel from Amarillo, Tex.; pilot William McCool, 41, a Navy commander from Lubbock, Tex. ; Payload Commander Michael Anderson, 43, from Spokane, Wash.; engineer Kalpana Chawla, 41, who emigrated to the U.S. from India in the 1980s; pilot-doctor David Brown, 46, a Navy Captain who was taking up a flag from his alma matter, Yorktown High School, in Arlington, Va.; Laurel Clark, 41, a Navy physician from Racine, Wis. and Ilan Ramon, a colonel in Israel’s air force and former fighter pilot.

Only Husband and Chawla had flown in space before.

Chawla was the first Indian-born woman and Ramon became the first Israeli to fly in space.

Ramon, a 48-year-old former fighter pilot in the Israeli air force who first served his nation’s defense as a cadet in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, was one of the fighter pilots who destroyed Iraq’s Osiraq nuclear reactor in a daring and controversial preemptive raid in 1981.

Terrorism fears and probable explanations

O’Keefe told reporters at a press conference this afternoon that there was
“no indication that the mishap was caused by anything or anyone on the ground.”

Security for the launch and landing was tighter than usual, as authorities feared Ramon’s presence might make the shuttle a terrorist target, according to the Associated Press.

Former astronaut Norman Thagard told ABC News it was “unlikely” that this was a terrorist incident because only the United States has any weapon that can shoot fast enough to drop a shuttle.

“There is no information that this was a terrorist incident,” said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the Homeland Security Department. “Obviously the investigation is just beginning but that is the information we have now.”


Columbia lifting off from launch pad Jan 16.

One technical glitch occurred on launch day when a piece of insulating foam on the external fuel tank came off during liftoff. It was believed to have struck the left wing of the shuttle.

Mission Control assured reporters that engineers had concluded that any damage to the wing was considered minor and posed no safety hazard.

“We don’t think that the tiles were a problem,” said NASA shuttle flight director Ron Dittemore. “When we analyzed it 10 days we did not think that it was an issue.”

“Is that the smoking gun? It’s not. More evidence needs to be on the table,” he said.

The shuttle was wrapping up a 16-day scientific research mission. NASA consultant Richard Berendzen told MSNBC it was “hard to imagine” that the experiments performed during the mission had anything to do with the shuttle’s apparent demise.

NASA has never lost a space crew during landing or the ride back to orbit over its 42 years of human space flight, according to AP.

Ironically, this week marks the anniversary of NASA’s only two other space tragedies, the Challenger explosion and the Apollo space craft fire that killed three on Jan. 27, 1967.

This was the 113th flight in the shuttle program and the 28th flight for Columbia, which is the oldest of the shuttle fleet.

Reaction to the tragedy

Family and friends of the astronauts gathered at the landing strip were taken by NASA escorts to a private area.

O’Keefe said the president, who rushed back to the White House from Camp David, had contacted the astronauts’ family members, expressing his “deepest sympathy.”

The office of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon released a statement offering support.


Astronauts in press conference onboard the space shuttle Columbia last week.

“The government of Israel and the people of Israel are praying together with the entire world,” said the statement. “The State of Israel and its citizens are as one at this difficult time.”

CBS News Correspondent Robert Berger, who is in Jerusalem, reports Israelis are in shock and disbelief.

“What happened is really painful to us, the loss of Ilan Ramon is a real national tragedy, he was a great personality, a special personality,” Salit Reuveni told Berger.

“They cheered at the launch, but now, it’s like a fairytale with a bad ending,” Berger said.

Meanwhile, there were reports of rejoicing taking place in Iraq, the expected target of the U.S. military which is looking to disarm Baghdad of weapons of mass destruction.

“We are happy that it broke up,” government employee Abdul Jabbar al-Quraishi told Reuters.

“God wants to show that his might is greater than the Americans. They have encroached on our country. God is avenging us,” he said.

Looking beyond into the darkness

NASA reports flight controllers in Mission Control secured all information, notes and data pertinent to Columbia’s entry and landing for use in its investigation.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Tex., told Fox News the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee will hold hearings on the disaster. Among the areas of inquiry, according to Hutchison, will be to what extent budget cuts have hurt the space agency.

“Today was a very stark reminder this is a very risky endeavor, pushing the frontiers of outer space,” Bill Readdy, associate administrator for space flight,
said. “After 113 flights, unfortunately, people have a tendency to look at it as something that is more or less routine. I can assure you it is not.”

Quoting conversations with the crew’s families, Readdy added, “They said, ‘We must find out what happened and move on. And we can’t let their sacrifice be in vain.’”

 


Related stories:

Bush: ‘Our journey into space will go on’

Israeli astronaut bombed Iraqi reactor

Profiles in courage: Astronaut biographies

Israel, India mourn loss of national heroes

Italian astronaut: Re-entry angle incorrect?

Radar of final moments

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