'Columbia Is Lost'

Michael Grunwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 2, 2003

The space shuttle Columbia, returning to Earth after a 16-day scientific journey through space, disintegrated yesterday morning high above the central Texas plains, killing seven astronauts who had dedicated their lives to exploring the heavens.

"The Columbia is lost," President Bush told the nation. "There are no survivors."

The Columbia, the oldest shuttle in the U.S. fleet, was streaking through the sky at 12,500 mph when it burst into flames about 9 a.m., shortly after reentering Earth's atmosphere. The crew of six Americans and the first Israeli astronaut -- Ilan Ramon, who had carried a Holocaust survivor's miniature Torah scroll into space -- was scheduled to land in Florida about 15 minutes later.

It was not clear last night what caused the Columbia's demise so close to home, but with the world bracing for war in Iraq -- and with terrorism fears heightened by the presence of the first Israeli in space -- U.S. officials said they saw nothing to suggest foul play. There were a few possible indications of mechanical trouble from shuttle sensors in the minutes before the disaster, but the mission director said the Columbia was still "flying with no problems at that time," 39 miles above Earth. Then there was a tremendous bang and a burst of light, before the plume of white smoke trailing the shuttle thickened, fractured and melted away.

It was 17 years ago that the space shuttle Challenger exploded with six astronauts and the schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe on board Jan. 28, 1986, and yesterday's tragedy immediately provoked more soul-searching about the U.S. space program. Some experts had warned in recent years that the shuttle program was a disaster waiting to happen, and NASA yesterday launched an investigation and put the shuttle program on hold. But Bush vowed that "our journey into space will go on," and NASA's Bill Readdy said the victims' grieving families want that as well.

"They knew that the crew was absolutely dedicated to the mission that they were performing," said Readdy, a former shuttle commander who is now NASA's deputy administrator for space flight. "They said that we must find what happened and fix it and move on. We can't let their sacrifice be in vain."

This was the Columbia's 28th mission -- its first, in 1981, launched the space shuttle program -- and it had already been hailed as a scientific success. The crew had worked on more than 80 microgravity experiments designed to help treat prostate cancer, predict earthquakes, suppress fires and develop new products ranging from paints to perfumes. They had studied the effects of weightlessness on spiders, fish and silkworms in experiments designed by students in Melbourne, Beijing and Tokyo. They also studied themselves, swallowing calcium tracers and drawing their blood to help track bone loss and protein production in space.

Ramon had put together a high-tech project to observe a dust plume over the Mediterranean, and then used a camera to snap rare photographs of lightning phenomena known as "sprites" and "elves." In a news conference from orbit on Wednesday, payload commander Michael P. Anderson declared that "the science we're doing here is great and fantastic."

The mission had encountered one glitch during liftoff, when a chunk of insulating foam from the external fuel tank detached and apparently struck the shuttle's left wing. NASA officials had pronounced the damage insignificant, but yesterday, after the first signs of trouble came when sensors on that same wing stopped transmitting data, investigators said the issue would be studied closely. Flight controllers also noticed a minor electrical current spike in a water distribution system a few days into the mission, and later shut down an identical system after it sprung a leak, but there were no indications that the problems were serious.

Even the final radio transmissions to and from the shuttle suggested possible concern but no imminent danger. "We see your tire pressure messages and we did not copy your last," said Mission Control in Houston. Mission commander Rick D. Husband calmly replied: "Roger," but then his transmission cut off in mid-word. There was silence, and then static.

"We will not fly again until we have this understood," shuttle chief Ron Dittemore said at a news briefing in Houston. "Somewhere along the line we missed something."

The Columbia was taken out of commission in 1999 for extensive renovations. It returned to space for the first time last March, and after a cracked steel bearing was found last year on the orbiter Discovery, officials spent several weeks analyzing materials before clearing the Columbia for launch.

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