CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida: Space shuttle Columbia broke apart in flames 200,000 feet over Texas yesterday, killing all seven astronauts just minutes before they were to glide to a landing in Florida.
"Sadly, from the video that's available, it does not appear that there were any survivors," said Bill Readdy, NASA's associate administrator for space flight. Readdy said it was too early to speculate about the exact cause. NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said the accident was not caused by anything or anyone on the ground.
The six Americans and Israel's first astronaut were 16 minutes from landing when the shuttle broke apart. Columbia had been expected to land at Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 9.16 am. At 9 am Mission Control suddenly lost all data and voice contact with the shuttle and crew. At the same time, residents of Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana reported hearing "a big bang" and seeing flames in the sky.
Television footage showed a bright light followed by smoke plumes streaking diagonally through the sky. Debris appeared to break off into separate balls of light as it continued downward. NASA declared an emergency after losing contact with the crew and within minutes said search teams had been sent to the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
In Nacogdoches, Texas, residents found bits of metal strewn across the city. Dentist Jeff Hancock said a metal bracket about a foot long had crashed through his office roof.
Two hours after the shuttle had been expected to land, the giant screen at the front of Mission Control showed a map of the Southwest United States and what should have been Columbia's flight path. The US flag next to the centre's countdown clock was lowered to half-staff.
The shuttle flight was the 113th in the shuttle programme's 22 years and the 28th flight for Columbia, NASA oldest shutace flight, there had never been an accident during the descent to Earth or landing. On January 28, 1986, space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff.
The shuttle is essentially a glider during the hour-long decent from orbit toward the landing strip. It is covered by about 20,000 thermal tiles to protect against temperatures as high as 3,000 degrees (1,650 degrees Celsius).
On January 16, shortly after Columbia lifted off, a piece of insulating foam on its external fuel tank came off and was believed to have hit 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.
The shuttle was at an altitude of about 203,000 feet (60,900 metres) over north-central Texas at 9 am, traveling at 12,500 mph (20,112 kph), when Mission Control lost all contact and tracking data.
Gary Hunziker in Plano, Texas, said he saw the shuttle flying overhead. "I could see two bright objects flying off each side of it," he told The Associated Press.
"The barn started shaking and we ran out and started looking around," said Benjamin Laster of Kemp, Texas. "I saw a puff of vapor and smoke and saw big chunk of material fall."
Former astronaut John Glenn and his wife were watching on television at their home in Maryland. "Once you went for several minutes without any contact, you knew something was terribly wrong," Glenn said.
The Columbia crew was relatively inexperienced. Only three of the seven had flown in space before: the shuttle's commander, Rick Husband, Michael Anderson, and Kalpana Chawla. The other four were rookies: pilot William McCool, David Brown, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon.
Security had been extraordinarily tight for their 16-day scientific research mission because of the presence of Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut.