Space Shuttle Columbia Explodes

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"It's gone." That's what a senior US official says about space shuttle Columbia, which broke apart in flames on its way to landing early Saturday morning.

Columbia was streaking toward Florida for a scheduled landing at 9:16 AM Eastern time when NASA lost contact with it at 9 AM.

All seven astronauts on board were killed.

The official says debris strewn across Texas and apparently some other states has been positively identified as being from the shuttle. Residents in Nacogdoches, Texas say they've found debris strewn across their town, including machinery and pieces of metal.
A local police spokesman says there have been several reports of falling debris in the city, which is about 135 miles northeast of Houston. Officials are also warning people not to touch the debris, because there could be toxic substances in it.

Space shuttle Columbia was launched on January 16th on a science mission that made headlines because of the presence of the first Israeli astronaut in space. Security was tighter than usual because of Ilan Ramon's presence, but lift off went smoothly and the
mission was going well until Columbia was reported missing just minutes before it was supposed to land at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. There were six Americans on board the shuttle along with Ramon. Columbia's crew completed all of their 80-plus experiments in orbit. They studied ant, bee and spider behavior in weightlessness as well as changes in flames and flower scents, and took measurements of atmospheric dust with a pair of Israeli cameras.

The US military is monitoring the space shuttle situation and ready to provide any help.
A senior defense official says the military is in close contact with NASA. But so far, the official says the US military has not been asked to provide help. The defense official says there's a wide variety of tasks the military could perform, if asked. That includes help in search and rescue, communications, satellite imagery and medical aid. However, the official says any military help would be in support of civil authorities in the US.

NASA chief Sean O'Keefe is meeting with the astronauts' families, who had been waiting at Florida's Kennedy Space Center for this morning's scheduled landing. TV footage showed a bright light over Texas, followed by plumes of smoke streaking through the sky. Debris seemed to break off into separate balls of light. A North Texas man says he heard a "terrific explosion" around the time space shuttle "Columbia" broke up.

Richard Coleman of Palestine says there was a loud boom that made the building he was in shake. Police in a Bossier City, Louisiana about 180 miles east of Dallas got so many calls that one officer had to be assigned just to answer the phone. A police spokesman says witness accounts varied -- one man says he saw a plane breaking up, another says he saw a "big ball of fire," and yet another says he heard a blast that shook his house.
President Bush has rushed back to the White House from Camp David, and is expected to address the nation later today on the loss of shuttle Columbia. Shortly before he arrived by motorcade, the American flag atop the White House was lowered to half staff.

The president was at his retreat in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains when he was notified by Chief of Staff Andrew Card that NASA had lost contact with the shuttle. Officials say Bush spoke by phone with NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, then ordered up his
motorcade for a return to the capital.

Space shuttle Columbia was a pioneer in NASA's fleet. The shuttle was the oldest in the fleet -- and the first to enter the Earth's orbit in 1981. Its latest voyage was its 28th trip into orbit.

Columbia was named after the ship that made the first American circling of the globe in 1792.

The shuttle had gone through 50 modifications, including the addition of carbon brakes, improved steering and enhancement of its heat protection system.

Scientists had found three cracks last July in Columbia's steel liners, which are used to direct the flow of hydrogen fuel to the main engines. Similar cracks had been found in other shuttles. Age wasn't considered a factor in the cracks because they were found in NASA's oldest and newest shuttles.

Christa McAuliffe's mother says the Columbia tragedy is bringing back painful reminders of the Challenger disaster that killed her schoolteacher daughter.

McAuliffe was one of seven astronauts killed in the January 28th, 1986 Challenger explosion. Her mother, Grace Corrigan, says she's not doing well now. She says news of the loss of Columbia is "very upsetting."

Paul Resnik's cousin Judith also died on Challenger. He says the memories and feelings of dread have come flooding back. He says when he saw the news, his thoughts turned to Challenger and he got a "bad feeling that something terrible had happened."

Tourists and residents awaiting the shuttle landing this morning in Florida are expressing shock and dismay.

A California man at a prime vantage point near the Kennedy Space Center says once the shuttle was about ten to 15 minutes late, he saw people "slumped over, slowly walking back depressed."

Several tourists say they knew something was wrong when the landing time came and went with no sign of the shuttle. A spokesman for Governor Jeb Bush says Columbia's disappearance "is an absolute tragedy."