At approximately 808AM CST on Saturday, February 1, the space shuttle Columbia apparently broke up in flight while descending toward a landing in Florida. The orbiter was over Texas at the time, engaging in the terminal phases of shuttle mission STS-107. Video of the sky area where the shuttle was descending shows multiple smoke trails, indicating that the orbiter had disintegrated. NASA has said that there was no indication of trouble from the astronauts.
Columbia was the oldest space shuttle, and also the heaviest. It was considered the best glider, for this reason. It first flew in 1981. It was carrying seven astronauts, including an Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon. Colonel Ramon was conducting experiments with a new camera.
No cause for the crash has been ruled out, but the White House has announced that there is no indication of terrorist action.
The crew members were: Commander Rick Husband, pilot Willie McCool, specialists Mike Anderson, Kulpana Chawla, Dave Brown, Laurel Clark and Col. Ilan Ramon, listed as payload specialist.
At launch, a section of insulating foam on the external fuel tank came off during liftoff. It was believed to have struck the left wing of the shuttle, but the astronauts did not observe any damage from onboard. No EVA was conducted to examine the wing. However, if there was damage to the lower wing surface, especially along the leading edge, this could have initiated a breakup of the vehicle during re-entry. NASA flight director Leroy Cain had stated that the wing damage was believed to be minor by NASA engineers, and not to pose a threat to re-entry.
Debris was falling over central Texas as of 830AM. The flight was conducted under special security conditions due to the presence of an Israeli astronaut.
Columbia was at an altitude of 200,700 feet over north-central Texas at at 8 AM CST, moving at 12,500 mph when mission control lost telemetry contact. There has been no radio contact.
NASA is warning residents of central Texas to be careful of falling debris, and the president is convening a group of experts from a number of different agencies to evaluate the situation.
There are parachute systems aboard the shuttle designed to enable it to land at lower alititude. They are not useful unless the orbiter is moving at subsonic speeds and a much lower altitude.
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