Shuttle disaster probe continues

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- Space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during its return to Earth on Feb. 1, killing seven astronauts and dealing a stunning blow to America's space program.

High over Texas and just short of home, space shuttle Columbia fell to pieces raining debris over hundreds of miles of countryside. It was a gut-wrenching loss for a country and world already staggered by tragedy.

The catastrophe occurred 39 miles above the Earth, in the last 16 minutes of the 16-day mission, as the spaceship glided in for a landing in Florida. In its horror and in its backdrop of a crystal blue sky, the day echoed one almost exactly 17 years before, when the Challenger exploded and killed seven astronauts.

Authorities fielded countless reports of scattered debris and at least one report of found human remains.

“The Columbia is lost,” said President Bush, after he telephoned the families of the astronauts to console them.

“The same creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today,” Bush said, his eyes glistening. “The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth but we can pray they are safely home.”

The news hit especially hard near the space center. College basketball games in nearby Melbourne were canceled, business people stayed home, and grieving tourists dropped to their knees to pray.

As the awful truth of the day came into focus, families of the astronauts were spirited away from public viewing areas where they had awaited the landing and taken to a private corner of the space center.

Mission Control suddenly lost all data and voice contact with the shuttle shortly before a planned 9:16 a.m. ET landing at Kennedy Space Center.

At the same time, residents of Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana reported hearing “a big bang” as Columbia traveled 38 miles high at 16 times the speed of sound.

Debris rained down over hundreds of square miles of Texas and Louisiana, smashing a rooftop and splashing into a reservoir. Authorities urged the public to report any debris but not touch it for fear of toxic contamination.

In Hemphill, near the Louisiana state line, hospital employee Mike Gibbs reported finding what appeared to be a charred torso, thigh bone and skull on a rural road near what was believed to be other debris.

Unlike the probe of the Challenger disaster 17 years ago, NASA will not be on its own to investigate what caused the destruction of Columbia, officials said Saturday.

Two investigations -- one led by an independent panel, the other coordinated by NASA management -- were ordered by the Bush administration within hours of the Columbia catastrophe. The dual approach is intended to ensure that the fact-finding process is thorough and impartial.

One potential focus of any investigation: possible damage to Columbia's protective thermal tiles on the left wing from a flying piece of debris during liftoff Jan. 16. NASA said the first indication of trouble Saturday was the loss of temperature sensors in the left wing's hydraulic system.

The spacecraft had just re-entered the atmosphere and had reached the point at which it was subjected to the highest temperatures.

NASA officials put a hold on shuttle flights until the cause of the disaster is determined, and the schedule for any future missions is undetermined.

The spacecraft had just re-entered the atmosphere and had reached the point at which it was subject to the highest temperatures.

Authorities said there was no indication that terrorism was to blame.

Bush vowed the space program would continue.

“Our journey into space will go on,” he said.

Columbia's crew consisted of the commander, Air Force Col. Rick Douglas Husband; the co-pilot, Navy Cmdr. William C. McCool; mission specialists Kalpana Chawla; Navy Capt. David M. Brown; Air Force Lt. Col. Michael P. Anderson; Navy Cmdr. Laurel Blair Salton Clark; and Israeli Air Force Col. Ilan Ramon, Israel's first astronaut.

Four of the crew, including Ramon, had never before flown on a space mission. Ramon had taken with him a small Torah scroll that had been secretly read by Jews in one of the Nazi death camps.

The diversity of the crew -- three white American men, a white American woman, a black American man, an Israeli national and an Indian immigrant -- was what stuck many Americans about yesterday's tragedy.

The astronauts were a combination of steely test pilots and modern-day engineering phenoms. Ramon was a bona-fide combat hero, flying missions in the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and the Lebanon War in 1982.

“We trust the prayers of the nation will be with them and with their families,’’ said NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe. “A more courageous group of people you could not have hoped to know.”

Columbia's mission featured more than 80 experiments ranging from the effects of space travel on astronauts to the possibility of creating a new perfume from outer space.

Spiders, flowers, cancer cells, ants, carpenter bees, fish embryos, silkworms and rats were on board.

All appeared normal as Columbia, the oldest in the shuttle fleet, fired its thrusters at 8:17 a.m. ET to leave orbit and land at Kennedy Space Center. For much of the fiery re-entry through Earth's atmosphere, communications between the ground and the shuttle routinely are lost.

But when contact with Columbia was scheduled to resume about 9 a.m., ground controllers heard nothing but silence.

Ron Dittemore, the shuttle program manager, said the space agency picked up first indications of a problem less than a half hour before the shuttle was scheduled to land, with the loss of temperature sensors on left wing.

Dramatic television images of the shuttle's descent showed several white trails streaking through the blue sky, which showed the breakup of the shuttle because normally only a single trail is visible, experts said.

Across the city of Nacogdoches, Texas, and the surrounding region of pine forest, residents found chunks of debris. A small tank rested on a runway. A steel rod with silver bolts was roped off behind yellow police tape in a yard. A piece of metal rested in a bank parking lot.

This was the space program's third fatal accident involving astronauts.

Apollo 1 caught fire on the launch pad, killing its three-man crew during a countdown test in 1967.

The shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after launch on Jan 28, 1986. Among its crew was Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space.

On Saturday McAuliffe's hometown of Concord, N.H. relived horrible memories of the doomed Challenger flight.

“God, it's like deja vu,” said Douglas Woodward, who was in the VIP viewing stands at Cape Canaveral 17 years ago this week. “Those poor people. Another whole crew.”

The Kennedy Space Center visitor complex remained opened Saturday, but guided tours of the Kennedy complex were canceled for the day. Visitors were allowed to enter free.

More than 500 people gathered for a moment of silence around the Astronaut Memorial, a black granite wall etched with the names of astronauts killed in the line of duty.

In the first few hours after Columbia’s disappearance, a handful of visitors sought out the Astronaut Hall of Fame in Titusville, using the museum’s treasures and tributes to remind themselves of just why those aboard the doomed space shuttle were up there in the first place.

“We decided maybe we could learn a little bit more about astronauts,” said Dianne Sutphin, 55, vacationing with her husband, Richard, from Eagle Springs, N.C. “It makes you appreciate it all a little bit more.”

Columbia was coming home from a successful mission to do research 170 miles above Earth. NASA officials were elated the flight had accomplished all of its main goals. It was the 113th flight in the shuttle program's 22 years and the 28th flight for Columbia.

The landing was the first time behind the controls for astronaut Husband, a 45-year-old former Air Force test pilot assigned to command Columbia after co-piloting a previous shuttle flight. It was co-pilot McCool's first landing.

The risks of reentry from space are well-established. In April 1967 Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Mikhailovich Komarov became the first man to die in a space mission when a parachute on his spaceship failed on re-entry, and the ship crashes to Earth. And in June 1971 three Soviet cosmonauts died during re-entry after 24 days in an orbiting space laboratory.

In 42 years of U.S. human space flight, however, there had never been an accident during the descent to Earth or landing.

After the Challenger accident in 1986, most of NASA's attention was focused on safety issues surrounding the shuttle's launch. Landing was considered less risky.

“I worry a lot less during this [landing] than the launch,” said veteran NASA shuttle manager Wayne Hale, who supervised many launches and landings. “There are just fewer ways of getting in trouble during entry.”

An automated landing system never is used, however, making touchdown subject to human error. If trouble occurs, there aren't many options. Because the shuttle lands without power, it glides steeply out of orbit after circling a quarter of the way around the globe.

“It is the one task that the pilots train most extensively for as far as the hands-on flying,” former astronaut Richard Covey said. “There is no margin for error in the landing sequence.”

Unlike the pilot of a powered airplane, a shuttle commander can't open the throttle, pull up and circle around to try again. Once the shuttle fires its engines to leave orbit and re-enter Earth's atmosphere, it is committed to coming down.

This was the 88th mission since the Challenger explosion.

That disaster, NASA's first accident in flight, sidelined the space agency for 32 months.

With more than two dozen additional space station assembly flights scheduled aboard the shuttle during the next five years, the future of the station, as well as the shuttle program itself, could be in jeopardy.

The chairman of the House Science Committee, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., recently said the loss of another orbiter could set human space flight back for years.

“If we do lose another orbiter, we can't replace it as quickly as we replaced Challenger,” Sensenbrenner said. “We also are considerably behind as the result of some management failures and some funding failures to go to the next stage for a new reusable launch vehicle that could have human beings on board.”

Columbia's mission was the first of six scheduled for 2003. The next scheduled shuttle flight is a mission to the international space station aboard Atlantis in early March. But NASA's three other orbiters -- Atlantis, Endeavour and Discovery -- likely will be grounded pending a review of Columbia's accident.

NASA won't have a vehicle other than the shuttle capable of carrying people into space until at least the end of the decade. However Saturday's accident could accelerate efforts to find a replacement.

Jason Garcia of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report. Wire services were also used.