The space shuttle Columbia Exploded
By D'Vera Cohn and William Harwood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 1, 2003; 7:15 PM
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Feb. 1 - The space shuttle Columbia, speeding back to the Earth's atmosphere at 12,500 miles per hour, abruptly disintegrated in flames 207,135 feet above north central Texas today for unknown reasons, killing all seven astronauts aboard.
"The Columbia is lost," President Bush said in a live address to the nation from the White House about 2 p.m. "There are no survivors."
The crew, led by mission chief Rick Husband, an Air Force colonel, included five other Americans and the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon, an Israeli Air Force colonel. Four were on their first space flights.
Officials said they had no indication the spacecraft was brought down by terrorists, noting that it was flying too high to be hit by a surface-to-air missile. NASA promised to launch its own investigation, and the government also announced that it would form an outside panel to look into what happened.
"We will be poring over that data 24 hours a day for the foreseeable future," said Ron Dittemore, space shuttle program manager.
The first indication that something was amiss, NASA officials told a mid-afternoon news conference in Houston, came at 8:53 a.m. EST, when some sensors on the craft's left side stopped functioning properly. Over the following six minutes, other left-side sensors also quit working, and "then we lost all vehicle data" around 9 a.m., said Milt Heflin, chief flight director. That was 16 minutes before the craft was scheduled to land in Florida.
During launch day on Jan. 16, a piece of orange insulating foam on the Columbia's external fuel tank came off during liftoff and was believed to have struck the protective tiles on the leading edge of the shuttle's left wing. The shuttle did not have a robot arm on this mission, so the crew was never able to actually look at the area where the foam hit.
Dittemore said NASA engineers had concluded after a "goodly amount of time" and analysis that the launch-day incident would not threaten the flight's safety. In hindsight, he said, "We can't discount that there might be a connection. But we have to caution you and ourselves that we can't rush to judgment."
Bush, who returned to Washington from the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland, told the families of the astronauts, "The entire nation grieves with you." And he promised the nation, "The cause in which they died will continue."
He quoted from the Bible and said, "The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth but we can pray they are safely home."
Bush ordered the U.S. flag to be flown as a mark of respect until Wednesday.
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, wearing a red sports shirt as he hunched over a microphone at an early afternoon news conference, praised the astronauts, who were returning from a 16-day mission. "They dedicated their lives to pushing the scientific challenges for all of us here on Earth. . . . A more courageous group of people you could not have hoped to know."
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, whose new department is in charge of securing and collecting debris from the spacecraft, assigned that task to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The effort was aided by the military's Northern Command, as well as by the Army's 1st Calvary Division, which sent helicopter-equipped search and rescue teams from Fort Hood, Texas.
"They were able to determine fairly early on that we didn't have information or indicators of terrorism at this time," said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the Homeland Security Department.
And NASA Administrator O'Keefe said, "At this time we have no indication that the mishap was caused by anything or anyone on the ground."
An administration official said authorities learned of a threat against the Columbia last summer - associated with the original July 19 launch date - but determined it to be "not credible." Mission managers delayed the launch until January when cracks were discovered on one of the shuttle engine's liquid hydrogen flow liners. There were no threats made against the Columbia since then, he said.
Residents of north Texas said they heard a loud explosion about 9 a.m. Video cameras recorded multiple contrails spraying outward from the spacecraft, minutes away from landing on a brilliant, sunny winter's morning.
People in Nacogdoches, Tex., a city in the eastern part of the state, reported finding metal debris falling throughout the area about the time that the shuttle problems were being reported. Debris also was reported to have landed hundreds of miles away in adjacent states. This evening, Houston television stations reported that some human remains had been found and were believed to from the shuttle.
NASA immediately declared an emergency and warned area residents to watch out for falling debris and to avoid touching remnants of the spacecraft, which they said could be impregnated with toxic chemicals.
The shuttle returns to Earth as an unpowered glider, using small maneuvering jets to change its orientation until it gets deep enough in the atmosphere for its aerosurfaces to take effect. Because it flies as a glider, along a very specific trajectory, the shuttle has no fly-around capability and must reach the intended runway.
NASA released the transcript of a final partial communication between Mission Control and the shuttle, in which Mission Control radioed: "Columbia, Houston, we see your tire pressure messages and we did not copy your last."
Columbia's responds: "Roger, uh . . . "
Then the transmission breaks off.
It was unclear today whether the tire pressure message had anything to do with the loss. It may have simply been an instrumentation alert. On the other hand, it could also indicate that temperatures were rising very rapidly in the belly of the orbiter, which takes the brunt of the heat on re-entry.
The Federal Aviation Administration issued a temporary flight restriction today below 3,000 feet for all unauthorized aircraft from Cedar Creek, Tex., to Fort Polk, La., an area 40 miles wide and about 170 miles long over the area where debris was being located. Officials said this was to keep out sightseers and to give NASA aircraft a clear area to operate. Some early broadcast reports that this was because of a continued debris fall are untrue, the officials said.
Besides Husband and Ramon, the shuttle crew included pilot William "Willie" McCool, flight engineer Kalpana Chawla, physicians Laurel Clark and David Brown and payload commander Michael Anderson.
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. Columbia was NASA's original space shuttle, blasting off for the first time on April 12, 1981. Since then, Columbia completed 27 successful missions, logging 284 days, 19 hours, 19 minutes in space before the current mission got underway. The other shuttle's in NASA's fleet - Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour - remain operational, but obviously grounded until the cause of today's disaster are determined. All told, the shuttle fleet logged 1,015 days, 14 hours, and 15 minutes of flight time in the 112 flights going into Columbia's mission.
The next planned flight by shuttle Atlantis will not fly until engineers determine what went wrong today. Beyond that, it's not yet clear what effect the loss of one of NASA's four space shuttles will have on the launch schedule.
Columbia, NASA's oldest, heaviest space shuttle, does not make routine flights to the space station because it is unable to carry heavy payloads to the station's orbit. But NASA had planned to launch Columbia to the station on its next flight in November, a mission featuring the agency's first educator astronaut, Barbara Morgan. Morgan was the backup to the first "teacher in space," Christa McAuliffe, who died in the Challenger disaster.
Morgan was at the Kenedy Space Center today, flying approaches in a shuttle training craft with chief astronaut Kent Rominger, awaiting Columbia's return.
Cohn reported from Washington. Washington Post staff writers Sue Schmidt, Guy Gugliotta, Don Phillips and Mike Allen also contributed to this report.