Another Tragedy Hits Home:
Part of being the best country on Earth I guess:
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Feb. 1) - Space shuttle Columbia apparently broke apart in flames as it streaked over Texas toward its scheduled landing Saturday, killing all seven astronauts, six Americans and an Israeli.
NASA didn’t immediately declare the crew dead; however, the U.S. flag next to its countdown clock was lowered to half-staff.
Officials in Washington said that there was no immediate indication of terrorism, and that President Bush was informed and awaiting more information from NASA.
In north Texas, several residents reported hearing ”a big bang” at about 9 a.m., the same time all radio and data communication with the shuttle and its crew of seven was lost.
Television footage showed a bright light over Texas 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 sent search teams to the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Just over an hour after the shuttle had been expected to land, officials at Kennedy Space Center announced over loud speakers that a statement on the fate of the shuttle would be issued shortly. NASA warned people on the ground in Texas to stay away from any fallen debris.
It was the 113th flight in the shuttle program’s 22 years and the 28th flight for Columbia, NASA oldest shuttle.
Inside Mission Control, flight controllers hovered in front of their computers, staring at the screens after contact was lost. The wives, husbands and children of the astronauts who had been waiting at the landing strip were gathered together by NASA and taken to a secluded place.
”A contingency for the space shuttle has been declared,” Mission Control somberly repeated over and over as no word or any data came from Columbia.
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.
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.
Columbia had been aiming for a landing at 9:16 a.m. Saturday.
It 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 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.
A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Saturday there was no threat made against the flight and that the shuttle was out of range of a surface-to-air missile.
Security had been extraordinarily tight for Columbia’s 16-day scientific research mission because of the presence of Ilan 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.
Columbia’s crew had completed 80-plus scientific research experiments during their time in orbit.
Only three of the seven astronauts 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 Ramon.
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.