'Columbia Is Lost'
Shuttle Disintegrates on Reentry, Killing 7 Aboard

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.

Shuttle launches stopped making front-page news years ago, and shuttle landings -- which lack the TV-friendly pyrotechnics of liftoffs -- are often ignored. But yesterday offered a jarring reminder that there is nothing routine about space, or the men and women who go there. NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe described the lost crew as "an extraordinary, extraordinary group of astronauts," and everyone who spoke publicly -- including Bush -- was visibly shaken.

"They dedicated their lives to pushing the scientific challenges for all of us here on Earth," O'Keefe said. "The loss of this valiant crew is something we will never be able to get over."

Husband, 45, an Air Force fighter pilot from Amarillo, Tex., left behind a wife and two children. Co-pilot William C. McCool, 41, a Navy aviator from Lubbock, Tex., was on his first voyage into space. Anderson, 43, from Plattsburgh, N.Y., became the first African American to visit a space station in 1998 when he traveled to Mir on the shuttle Endeavour. Mission specialist Kalpana Chawla, 41, an aerospace engineer, became the first Indian native in space in 1997. Mission specialist David M. Brown, 46, a Navy flight surgeon, once performed as a circus acrobat and unicyclist. Laurel Blair Salton Clark, 41, a former pediatrician who was also a flight surgeon., had lost a cousin in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

"It was a very dj vu sort of thing, you know; we watched those towers smoking and eventually collapsing, and then you see this space shuttle breaking apart," said Clark's uncle, Doug Haviland, a retired Episcopal minister in Iowa. "Here it is all over again."

Then there was Ramon, 48, the crew's media darling, a child of a Holocaust survivor himself. In 1981, he was a fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force squadron that bombed an Iraqi nuclear facility. He later became an engineer. His mission has made daily headlines in his home country, a welcome distraction from the ongoing battle with Palestinians, and his chat with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon from space was broadcast live across the country.

The Columbia's landing had nowhere near the kind of audience that the Challenger's liftoff had in 1986, when classes around the country were suspended to let children watch McAuliffe. But at Cape Canaveral on Florida's Space Coast, space junkies gathered yesterday morning with festive anticipation that turned to gloom once the radio announcer announced the "contingency."

"It takes the life out of you," said Robyn Hoffmaster, 45, a Pennsylvania tourist who planned her vacation around the landing date.

The explosion created a shattering bang that was heard as far away as Arkansas, and scattered a shower of fiery -- and potentially toxic -- debris from the shuttle across a 500-square-mile swath of eastern Texas and western Louisiana. Chunks of metal crashed into back yards, parking lots and pine forests, as well as a dentist's office, a reservoir and a rooftop. In Hemphill, Tex., human remains were found in a wooded area.

In the college town of Nacogdoches, Tex. about 200 residents and 11 news trucks milled around a small piece of debris in a bank parking lot. Several compared the sound of the shuttle that had passed overhead to rolling thunder, an earthquake or a plane flying too low. "I'm looking at history," said 44-year-old Ricky Randolph. "Without a doubt, this is the biggest thing to happen in Nacogdoches since I've been here."

James McAdams, 64, heard the bang inside his house in Arlington, Tex. Then he went outside to get his newspaper and found a baseball-sized glassy object in his yard. "It's a broken-up piece of whatever it is, purple on one side and burned on one side," he said.

Now NASA will face its most serious crisis since the late 1980s, when the Challenger disaster and several mishaps surrounding the Hubble Telescope prompted a rethinking of the agency's mission. In recent years, the agency had discontinued a space-jet program that was seen as a possible successor to the shuttle, but some experts had warned that the shuttle program was dangerously underfunded and undermaintained.

There are still three American astronauts living on the $ 95 billion International Space Station, and they had been planning to catch a shuttle back to Earth later this year. NASA officials said they are not worried about getting the astronauts home -- a Russian vehicle at the station could take them back at any time -- but they said the investigation into the loss of the Columbia will have important repercussions for the future of U.S. exploration.

Still, everyone involved with the space program pledged that the march into the unknown will continue, just as they did after the Challenger went down. At the time, President Ronald Reagan gave perhaps the most stirring speech of his presidency in honor of six astronauts and one teacher, concluding that "we will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God."

Six weeks ago, NASA announced that Barbara Morgan of McCall, Idaho, would be the first teacher on the shuttle since 1986. She was scheduled to board Columbia on Nov. 13.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company