CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Feb. 1) - NASA declared an emergency after losing
communication with space shuttle Columbia as the ship soared over Texas
several minutes before its expected landing time Saturday morning.
The shuttle was carrying the first Israeli astronaut and six Americans, and
authorities had feared it would be a terrorist target.
Fifteen minutes after the expected landing time, and with no word from the
shuttle, NASA announced that search and rescue teams were being mobilized in
Dallas and Fort Worth areas.
Inside Mission Control, flight controller 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 separate place.
Columbia was at an altitude of 200,700 feet over north-central Texas at a 9
a.m., traveling at 12,500 mph when mission control lost contact and tracking
NASA, while not saying the shuttle had exploded, broken up or crashed, warned
that any debris found in the area should be avoided and could be hazardous.
There were reports of debris seen falling.
In 42 years of human space flight, NASA has never lost a space crew during
landing or the ride back to orbit. In 1986, space shuttle Challenger exploded
shortly after liftoff.
Security had been tight for the 16-day scientific research mission that
included the first Israeli astronaut.
Ilan 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 Jan. 16 launch, but also for
its landing. Space agency officials feared his presence might make the
shuttle more of a terrorist target.
On launch day, a piece of insulating foam on the external fuel tank came off
during liftoff and was believed to have struck the left wing of the shuttle.
Leroy Cain, the lead flight director in Mission Control, had assured
reporters Friday that engineers had concluded that any damage to the wing was
considered minor and posed no safety hazard.
Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. The information contained in the AP news
report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed
without the prior written authority of The Associated Press. All active
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