Space Shuttle Columbia Loses Contact

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Space shuttle crew STS-107. Aboard Columbia were: Commander Rick Husband, 45, a U.S. Air Force colonel and test pilot, was on his second space mission, his first as the shuttle’s commander. A graduate of Texas Tech University, he is married and the father of two children; Pilot William "Willy" McCool, a former Marine Corps infantryman turned U.S. Navy aviator, was on his first space flight. A native of San Diego, Calif., McCool is married and the father of three sons; Flight engineer Kalpana Chawla, a native of Karnal, Ind., and a University of exas graduate, was making her second trip into space. She is unmarried; Mission specialist Michael Anderson, a 43-year-old U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, was flying as Columbia’s payload commander and was on his second space mission. A native of Plattsburgh, N.Y., he is married with children; Medical officer and flight surgeon Laurel Clark, a 41-year-old Navy commander, was mission specialist. An Iowa native, she considers Racine, Wis., to be her home town. She was on her first mission and is married with a son; Columbia mission specialist David Brown, a 46-year-old Navy captain, was on his first flight into space. Reared in Arlington, Va., Brown graduated from William and Mary, he studied medicine at the Eastern Virginia Medical School and joined the Navy; Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, is the son of a 48-year-old Air Force colonel and the son of a Holocaust survivor, was selected by his country to fly aboard Columbia as his nation’s first astronaut.Image Credit: NASA

View Updated Mission Report: Ongoing Investigations

Television stations showed what appeared to be debris falling, and NASA warned Texas residents to beware of any falling objects. NASA also announced that search and rescue teams were being mobilized in the Dallas and Fort Worth areas.

Inside Mission Control, flight controllers hovered in front of their computers, staring at the screens. The wives, husbands and children of the astronauts who had been waiting at the landing strip were gathered together by NASA and taken to secluded place.

"A contingency for the space shuttle has been declared," Mission Control repeated over and over as no word or any data came from Columbia.

In 42 years of U.S. human space flight, there had never been an accident during the descent to Earth or landing. On Jan. 28, 1986, space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff.

On Jan. 16, shortly after Columbia lifted off, a piece of insulating foam on its external fuel tank came off and was believed to have struck the left wing of the shuttle. Leroy Cain, the lead flight director in Mission Control, assured reporters Friday that engineers had concluded that any damage to the wing was considered minor and posed no safety hazard.

Columbia had been aiming for a landing at 9:16 a.m. Saturday.

It was at an altitude of 207,000 feet over north-central Texas at a 9 a.m., traveling at 12,500 mph when Mission Control lost contact and tracking data.

Security had been tight for the 16-day scientific research mission because of the presence of Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut.

Ramon, a colonel in Israel’s air force and former fighter pilot, became the first man from his country to fly in space, and his presence resulted in an increase in security, not only for Columbia’s launch, but also for its planned landing. Space agency officials feared his presence might make the shuttle more of a terrorist target.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s office said it had no immediate comment.

Columbia’s crew had completed 80-plus scientific research experiments during their time in orbit.