‘The Columbia is lost’

Shuttle Columbia exploded and broke apart over central Texas Saturday morning on its way to land at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, killing all seven STS-107 crew members.

“The Columbia is lost,” President George W. Bush said during a press conference Saturday. “There are no survivors.”

The tragedy happened during the week of the anniversary of the Shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986.

The Columbia crew consisted of six Americans and an Israeli cosmonaut–commander Rick Husband, a colonel in the U.S. Air Force; U.S. Navy commander William C. McCool, U.S. Air Force colonel Michael P. Anderson, U.S. Navy Captain David M. Brown, aerospace engineer and FAA Certified Flight Instructor Kalpana Chawla, U.S. Navy commander and naval flight surgeon Laurel Blair Salton Clark and Ilan Ramon, a colonel in the Israeli Air Force and the first Israeli ever to travel in space.

It was also the first flight for McCool, Brown and Clark. It was only the second for Husband and Anderson.

Milt Heflin, NASA Chief Flight Director, said mission control lost communication with STS-107 at 7:53 a.m., central time. Minutes later, NASA lost all communications with Columbia.

“We lost all our vehicle data around 8 a.m. central time,” Heflin said.

Ron Dittemore, NASA Shuttle Program Manager, said the shuttle was lost at Mach-18, during the most intense heating environment.

At that point in the landing, the shuttle is usually at a peak temperature of 3000 degrees Fahrenheit, traveling at 18 times the speed of sound.

“On entry, we understand that any drop-outs are brief at peak heating periods. Our expectation is that we get back rather quickly,” Dittemore said.

Instead, Columbia broke apart at some 200,000 feet above central Texas, 16 minutes before its scheduled landing at Kennedy Space Center. Toxic debris spread over the area.

The shuttle was at too high an altitude and traveling too fast for the crew to escape.

Dittemore said officials only became aware of the accident after watching it on television, because it lost communication with Columbia.

Capt. Winston Scott, former NASA astronaut and associate dean of the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering, said the point at which the shuttle exploded in the entry procedure is usually the easiest part, because the computer is navigating the vehicle.

“At this point it’s just a nice, smooth ride, said Scott, who knew the six American crew members personally. “That’s what’s so amazing about this.”

NASA officials are still investigating the cause of the explosion, but there were speculations Saturday about insulating tiles that damaged the shuttle’s left wing on launch day. The tiles keep the orbiter from burning in high temperatures as it lands.

Dittemore said the left wing of the Columbia, NASA’s oldest shuttle, was damaged while in orbit, but the tiles were not an immediate safety concern after the launch.

“In hindsight, we can’t discount that there might be a connection,” Dittemore said. “There are some other things we need to look at, the tile is just one.”

NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe said the chances that the tragedy was terrorism-related are unlikely.

“We have no indication that this mishap was caused by anyone or anything on the ground,” O’Keefe said at a press conference Saturday afternoon.

Officials will be spending the next few weeks collecting and examining any debris that may give clues as to the exact cause of the explosion.

Tanya Caldwell can be reached at Tanya_Caldwell@yahoo.com.