The Shuttle Columbia breaks apart more than 200,000 feet above the Earth, just minutes before it was supposed to land in Florida. Witnesses in Texas and Louisiana reported hearing a loud explosion, and seeing falling debris.
All seven of Columbia's crew members died in the accident. Commander Rick Husband, Pilot William Mccool, David Brown, Michael Anderson, Llaurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla and Ilan Ramon were all on board.
A House committee will join two other panels investigating the cause of the tragedy. NASA is investigating, as is an independent panel made up of officials from the Air Force, the Navy, the Transportation
Department and other federal agencies.
NASA has set up a command post at Barksdale Air Force Base in
Louisiana, and the National Transportation Safety Board is sending
its experts there.
The investigations will review all the information that NASA
collected as the Columbia began its descent for landing, then
started breaking up over Texas. That information includes transmissions from the crew, records from the shuttle's sensors, and analysis of the debris and data from military, government and commercial satellites. Officials say there's no indication of any kind of an attack.
If it turns the break up was caused by damage during the launch, as has been speculated, NASA says there's nothing that could have prevented it.
During Columbia's launch last month, a chunk of insulating foam peeled away from a fuel tank and hit the ship's left wing. An engineering analysis concluded that any damage to Columbia's
thermal tiles would be minor. The tiles protect the shuttle from
the extreme heat of re-entry into the atmosphere. Experts say if the tiles do turn out to be the cause, there is nothing the astronauts could have done to repair them.
The shuttle's left wing also exhibited sensor failures and other problems before the shuttle disintegrated. Shuttle manager Ron Dittemore says it's too soon to know if there's a connection.
Some heartbreaking discoveries have been found in the debris field in Texas and Louisiana, which covers hundreds of square miles. They include: human remains, a charred astronaut's patch, a flight helmet, and debris from the shuttle.
Along with the astronauts, a wealth of scientific data perished today. The 16 day scientific mission included more than 80 experiments,
ranging from the effects of space travel on the crew to the possibility of
creating a new perfume. The shuttle program manager, Ron Dittemore, says their science will be the legacy of the lost astronauts. Some research results are gone forever. Others had been downloaded to Earth already. Spiders, flowers, cancer cells, ants, carpenter bees, fish embryos, silkworms and rats were all aboard.
Still scientists say they're not mourning the experiments, they were not even in the same category as losing a crew.
Meanwhile, It doesn't look like NASA will build a shuttle to replace Columbia. After the Challenger explsion, Endeavour was built as a replacement using spare parts. But NASA can't do that this time around, and the shuttle's former chief engineer, Donald Emero, says the next generation of reusable spacecraft is at least ten to 15 years away.
That leaves a fleet of three shuttles, 18 year old Discovery, 17 year old Atlantis and ten year old Endeavour.
The status of the next shuttle mission, scheduled for March
first, is undecided at this point. That mission is supposed to be a
visit to the space station.