- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 2, 2003

Space Shuttle Columbia, returning from microgravity research in outer space, exploded yesterday morning 39 miles above Texas and disintegrated, killing all seven astronauts aboard.
"The Columbia is lost. There are no survivors," President Bush said in a three-minute address to the nation after the unexplained explosion brought him rushing back to the White House from Camp David.
There had been no hint of trouble from the crew, whose last radio transmission was, "Roger. Uh, buh …" to a controller in Houston who asked that a message be repeated.
Only static was heard after that transmission at 9 a.m. EST, 16 minutes before Columbia was scheduled to land at Kennedy Space Center near Cape Canaveral, Fla.
Mr. Bush telephoned to console astronauts' grieving families before they were escorted from Florida to National Aeronautics and Space Administration hideaways in Houston.
The president then assured the nation shortly after 2:04 p.m. that manned space exploration will continue despite the fact that NASA said the three shuttles left in the agency's fleet will not fly again until it knows what caused yesterday's disaster.
"The cause in which they died will continue. … Our journey into space will go on," Mr. Bush said of the first fatal accident in the U.S. space program involving a spacecraft returning to Earth.
Flags were lowered to half-staff in the United States and in Israel to mourn the crew of five men and two women, which included a native of India and an Israeli war hero who was his nation's first astronaut.
Columbia's disintegration rained a 150-mile path of debris over east Texas, setting small fires, endangering witnesses with noxious fumes and emitting so much heat that it registered a large crimson slash across weather radar screens at Shreveport, La.
Officials' best view of the breakup was in videotapes of images broadcast live on Dallas TV station WFAA, which clearly show one large piece break off and trail the main spacecraft for a second or two before a fiery flash. The explosion was visible from the ground, and it was detected by a U.S. spy satellite many miles above.
The single defined contrail across the brilliant blue sky suddenly was punctuated by white puffs and a bright burst of flame before it parted into at least five parallel smoke trails that followed shuttle parts no longer connected to each other.
NASA officials said they would examine the loss of tiles from the external fuel tank during Columbia's Jan. 16 launch. But Ron Dittemore, manager of the shuttle program, said he doubted any connection with the foam tiles, which hit the shuttle's left wing.
He said it was not likely that the craft's age was a contributing factor and dismissed a report that debris was seen falling off Columbia as it passed over Hawaii.
"I don't think age was a factor," Mr. Dittemore said of the 22-year-old shuttle the oldest in NASA's fleet. He acknowledged wear and corrosion but said the craft was like new.
"My thoughts are on what we missed, what I missed, that allowed this to happen," he said.
Columbia had no ejection seats, and its escape hatch would not be usable because the shuttle was traveling in Earth's atmosphere at 12,500 mph, or 18 times the speed of sound.
Early questions about the possibility of sabotage or terrorism were brushed off by NASA, FBI and Homeland Security Department officials who pointed out that a spacecraft traveling so fast at 207,135 feet above the stratosphere was beyond the reach of any known weapons.
Pre-launch security was even tighter than normal because the crew included Col. Ilan Ramon, 48, an Israeli fighter pilot and decorated Yom Kippur War hero who helped destroy an unfinished Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981.
The crew of the 113th shuttle flight the 28th for NASA's oldest shuttle was commanded by Air Force Col. Rick D. Husband, 45, who was on his second shuttle mission. The mission's pilot was Navy Cmdr. William C. McCool, 41, a space rookie.
The other crew members were:
c Kalpana Chawla, 41, a flying instructor on her second shuttle trip in five years.
c Navy Capt. David M. Brown, 46, of Arlington, a carrier pilot and flight surgeon.
c Air Force Lt. Col. Michael P. Anderson, 43, a former pilot of the Strategic Air Command "Looking Glass" airborne command center who also was on the shuttle that docked with space station Mir in 1998.
c Navy Cmdr. Laurel B. Clark, 41, a flight surgeon on her first space trip.
"At this time, we have no indication the mishap was caused by anything or anyone on the ground," NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said.
Mr. O'Keefe said independent investigations were begun immediately but that NASA grounded future shuttles until the "root cause" of the catastrophic failure is learned.
"We will not fly again until we have this understood," Mr. Dittemore said.
Although the crew of the International Space Station could be evacuated by a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, shuttle launches set for March 1 and May 23 to replenish space station supplies and rotate the crew will be delayed while those probes begin. A NASA official said the station has supplies to last until June.
Pieces of debris from Columbia as large as 4 square feet fell on the east Texas town of Nacogdoches, where residents reported hearing an "initial rolling roar," and across St. Augustine County to the Louisiana state line. No injuries were reported on the ground.
"It was almost a display of fireworks. We could not actually see anything hit the ground, hit the earth," said Kristie Banner, who first thought an airliner was crashing.
"Some pieces appear charred. Some are just various pieces of metal, pieces of heat shield," said police Lt. Dan Taravella, who said other pieces were small enough to hold in a hand.
"We've had private residences that are reported to be struck with minor damage, and businesses struck with minor damage," Lt. Taravella said.
Army search teams were dispatched from Fort Hood, Texas, to impound wreckage and search for bodies of the crew. At Hemphill, Texas, a hospital worker found a charred torso, thigh bone and skull on a rural road near shuttle debris. Civilian planes were cleared from the skies while helicopters and Air Force Reserve jets hunted for debris.
"This is indeed a tragic day for the NASA family, for the families of the astronauts … and likewise tragic for the nation," Mr. O'Keefe said after comforting astronauts' family members and friends gathered at a runway near Kennedy Space Center to await the scheduled landing.
Within minutes after the truth became obvious, controllers received counseling via loudspeaker.
Loss of the spacecraft in the final minutes of the 16-day microgravity study involving bone and prostate cancer occurred at a time when such trips had come to seem routine. That belief was contradicted yesterday by both the president and Mr. O'Keefe, who recalled the Challenger disaster 17 years ago Tuesday and the fiery deaths of the Apollo I crew in an accident whose 36th anniversary was Monday.
The Challenger crew killed during the explosion on liftoff from Cape Kennedy on Jan. 28, 1986, was not forgotten aboard Columbia, whose crew marked that anniversary by praising the "ultimate sacrifice" of Challenger's crew.
"It is a day when we remember and honor the crews of Apollo I and Challenger," Col. Husband said Tuesday in a broadcast to Earth as the crew joined NASA employees in a moment of silence for the other two deadly disasters for the U.S. space program, both of which occurred around the space station in Florida.
"Today was a very stark reminder. This is a very risky endeavor pushing back the frontiers in space," a NASA official said.
During the crew's mission, television interviews often were lighthearted: The astronauts hunted for plumes of dust over the Mediterranean Sea and tried to cool their orbiting laboratory, but also took sides in the Super Bowl.
Cmdr. McCool, a San Diego native, rooted for the Oakland Raiders, while Capt. Brown favored the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in honor of the Florida-based crews that launched Columbia.
The seven astronauts began re-entry over the Indian Ocean at about 400,000 feet by closing cargo bay doors and turning the spacecraft around to fly backward until its engines slowed it enough to begin descending from orbit.
Communication with Columbia's crew was lost when the shuttle was 1,400 miles from its destination, banking sharply to the left with wings 57 degrees off horizontal to slow its descent, while controllers inquired about air pressure in the landing gear tires.
A controller said, "Columbia, Houston. We see your tire pressure messages and we did not copy your last."
When the controller asked the crew to repeat, Col. Husband replied, "Roger."
The radio link then went silent, which did not immediately cause concern. Communications often are lost because of plasma caused by superheating that builds up around the spacecraft on re-entry.
However, fears rose quickly when controllers realized that a broad range of telemetry sensors also had been lost when Columbia was at 207,135 feet traveling at Mach 18.3, beginning with heat sensors on the leading edge of the left wing.
"The way we lost the sensors was like you just cut the wires," Mr. Dittemore said, indicating that whatever caused the explosion happened all at once, and not gradually.
Long before officials would concede the shuttle was lost, NASA declared "a space shuttle contingency" and began boxing up and sealing all books, notes, data and printouts, while computers were secured.
Mr. Dittemore said the kinds of data usually recorded by an airliner's "black boxes" are stored in Earth-based computers, but there is a voice recorder on board that could be helpful if it is recovered and not too badly damaged.
"We can't rush to judgment," the shuttle program manager said, indicating there were hints on avenues of investigation that include loss of tiles that protect from heat on re-entry, "a structural issue or some other event … whether debris hitting the orbiter [on liftoff] or some other event was the cause of this disaster."
Mr. Dittemore said an engine cowling on the booster for the last shuttle launch, STS-112, was hit by a tile but the damage appeared very minor and "not a safety-of-flight issue."
"Two occurrences in the last three flights is certainly a signal to our team that something has changed," Mr. Dittemore said of the debris being loosened during a launch.
It took 2 years to discover that the Challenger explosion was caused by a brittle rubber O-ring that allowed fuel to leak. Shuttles and launch vehicles involve thousands of components, which generally have backups. However, failure of one can be catastrophic.
The probe will include a panel of specialists from outside NASA, including those from the Air Force, Navy, Department of Transportation and "across the federal expanse," Mr. O'Keefe said. He said the investigation will be led by someone "external to the federal agencies."
Mr. Dittemore said it would be conducted more like the probe of an airliner crash, perhaps including attempts to reconstruct parts of the shuttle.
Some NASA officials indicated that attention would focus on the fact that the explosion occurred as the crew was transitioning from simply riding along on a ballistic course to taking over control and flying the spacecraft like an airplane.
At that point, the crew would activate an auxiliary power unit to control the flight surfaces that steer the returning shuttle, which otherwise is little more than a giant glider.

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