By Correspondent
NBC News

WASHINGTON, Feb. 1, 2003 - “Three, two, one, we have booster ignition and liftoff of space shuttle Columbia.”

That was Jan. 16, when Columbia lifted off with its seven astronauts, five men and two women. The crew was on science mission with 80-plus experiments.

As with most missions now, few Americans paid much attention until Saturday morning, when the clock started ticking on what would be a national tragedy.

8:08 a.m. ET

Mission Control in Houston gives the OK to come home:

“You are go for burn.”

Commander Rick Husband:

“OK, we copy a go for the burn right now.”

8:15 a.m.

The crew begins the de-orbit burn.

8:53 a.m.

The first hint of trouble surfaces, a loss of temperature sensors on the left wing.

8:59 a.m.

A message from Mission Control about low tire pressure:

“Columbia, Houston. We see your tire pressure messages and we did not copy your last.”

Commander Husband:

“Roger, buh ...”

The transmission goes silent for several seconds, followed by static. This would be the last communication with the shuttle.

9 a.m.

The shuttle is 39 miles over central Texas:

“Columbia out of communications at present with Mission Control as it continues its course towards Florida.”

Agonizing moments go by while mission controllers frantically try to restore communication with the shuttle.

9:06 a.m.

Mission Control:

“Columbia, Houston. Comm check?”

Image: Columbia Seen Over Dallas Texas
Columbia breaks apart over Dallas, just 16 minutes before it was supposed to land in Florida.
Witnesses in Texas hear deafening booms and see flaming pieces of metal shooting through the blue sky:

“I live in a mobile home, and it shook it like boom, boom… that’s what I thought, something blew up.”

“It just looked like the vapor clouds as the separate pieces were separating.”

9:16 a.m.

There is no sign of the shuttle at its Florida landing strip.

9:29 a.m.

NASA officials declare an emergency:

“This is Mission Control, Houston. Flight controllers here continue in a contingency, securing information and notes. Search-and-rescue teams have been mobilized to the Dallas-Fort Worth area.”

11 a.m.

The flag is lowered to half-staff at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

2:04 p.m.

President Bush addresses the nation:

“The Columbia’s lost. There are no survivors.”

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