NASA launches multi-agency investigation of shuttle tragedy

On what NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe called "a tragic day for the NASA family" and the nation, the space shuttle Columbia broke up as it descended over central Texas en route to a scheduled landing Saturday morning at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

"The Columbia is lost. There are no survivors," said President Bush Saturday afternoon. Seven crew members were aboard the shuttle.

NASA officials said they lost communication and tracking of the shuttle at about 9 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. At the time, Columbia was traveling 12,500 miles per hour at an altitude of 203,000 feet. The shuttle was scheduled to touch down at 9:16 a.m.

Before NASA lost contact with the Columbia, sensors on the spacecraft indicated several problems, including a loss of tire pressure on the left main landing gear and excessive structural heat throughout the shuttle.

Over a wide section of Texas, residents reported hearing a loud noise and seeing debris falling from the sky. Pieces of the shuttle were discovered over an area hundreds of miles wide.

O'Keefe announced Saturday afternoon that NASA officials had impounded all data relating to the incident, and had begun to examine it. The agency assembled its own Mishap Investigation Team to coordinate efforts to gather information at Kennedy Space Center, Johnson Space Center in Houston and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

The agency also convened a Mishap Investigation Board to conduct an independent investigation. The board will include representatives of the Air Force, the Navy, the Transportation Department and other federal agencies. The board "will be chaired by an individual who is external to the federal agencies and will have the responsibility to coordinate all the information from an external view," said O'Keefe.

"We'll find a cause, we'll fix it and then we'll move on," said William Readdy, NASA's associate administrator for space flight.

Bush said the tragedy would not deter space exploration efforts. "The cause in which [the crew members] died will continue. Our journey into space will go on," Bush said.

NASA employees, O'Keefe said, "diligently dedicate themselves every single day to ensure these things don't occur."

White House officials said Saturday that all possible causes for the crash would be investigated, but said there was no reason to believe it was an act of terrorism. No known earth-based weapon could take down a space shuttle at the altitude and speed it was traveling.

O'Keefe notified President Bush and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge shortly after NASA lost contact with the shuttle. Ridge contacted local officials in Texas to coordinate search and rescue and recovery efforts. NASA officials cautioned residents to avoid touching any pieces of debris, because toxic propellants were used aboard the shuttle.

The Columbia was on a 16-day science mission, the spacecraft's 28th mission in its history. The seven crew members on the mission were:

  • Rick D. Husband, commander. Air Force colonel who piloted a previous shuttle flight in 1999.
  • William C. McCool, pilot. Navy commander making his first space flight.
  • Michael P. Anderson, payload commander. Was on a 1998 shuttle flight to dock with the space station Mir.
  • David Brown, mission specialist. Navy aviator and flight surgeon who was working on several experiments.
  • Kalpana Chawla, mission specialist. An India native, she has logged hundreds of hours in space.
  • Laurel Clark, mission specialist. Navy commander and flight surgeon who was on her first space flight, conducting biological experiments.
  • Ilan Ramon, Israeli air force colonel and the first Israeli astronaut.
"The loss of this valued crew is something we will never get over," O'Keefe said.

There are now three spacecraft remaining in the shuttle fleet: Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour. The shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff on Jan. 28, 1986.

Previous incidents involving the space shuttle have prompted delays in the program. The fleet was grounded for more than two years following the Challenger disaster. In 1990, shuttles were mothballed for almost six months because of dangerous fuel leaks.

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