The space shuttle Columbia exploded over central Texas on Saturday soon after reentering the atmosphere en route to a landing at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, NBC Dallas affiliate KXAS reported. Video images obtained by the station showed the doomed shuttle descending at a severe trajectory and breaking apart as it plummeted to Earth. Officials in Texas dispatched search and rescue teams to the town of Palestine, southeast of Waco, the presumed point of impact. NASA, not yet confirming a disaster, announced it would hold a news conference shortly.
ACROSS TEXAS and New Mexico, explosions were reported to local law enforcement authorities and news agencies. In Dallas, NBC News’ Jim Cummins reported that a loud explosion was heard at about the same time NASA lost contact with the spacecraft — a time when the shuttle was flying at 200,700 feet, traveling at 12,500 mph.
Soon after that, witnesses say, what appeared to be a spacecraft plummeted to Earth, disintegrating in flames along the way.
Janet Smith-Bozart, who was driving near Dallas, saw what is believed to be the shuttle’s descent and described it to MSNBC.
“I thought at first it might be a meteor coming into the atmosphere and then I realized it was much too big and much too slow for that,” she said. “Essentially the entire thing just broke apart and the whole thing just disappeared. ... Eventually it just sort of faded and there was no more contrail or anything.”
Explosions were widely reported across Texas.
“It was like a car hitting the house or an explosion. It shook that much,” John Ferolito, 60, of Carrolton, north of Dallas, told the Associated Press.
Columbia had been scheduled to land at 9:16 a.m. It was the 113th flight in the shuttle program’s 22 years and the 28th flight for Columbia, NASA oldest shuttle. In 42 years of human space flight, NASA has never lost a space crew during landing or the ride back to orbit, though in 1986, space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff.
Mission control lost both voice and radar communication with the shuttle several minutes before it’s expected landing time.
“A contingency for the space shuttle has been declared,” Mission Control declared after attempts to reestablish contact failed. Soon afterward, mission control began warning the public that debris from such a crash could be hazardous.
NASA also ordered flight controllers to pull out emergency procedures and ordered them to retain all their records, presumably the first step toward securing evidence for a subsequent incident investigation.
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 separate place.
GIRDING FOR THE WORST
Family members of the shuttle crew, which included the first even Israeli astronaut, were gathered in by NASA officials at the Kennedy Space Center.
The Pentagon and Joint Chiefs of Staff are convening a “domestic event conference” for any possible response to the Columbia incident, NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski reported. President Bush is spending the weekend at Camp David, Maryland and was expected to speak later Saturday.
An official of the Department of Homeland Security, speaking on condition of anonymity, told NBC News that there is no indication that terrorism might have been involved.
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.
Just in the last week, NASA observed the anniversary of its only two other space tragedies, the Challenger explosion, which killed all seven astronauts on board, and Apollo space craft fire that killed three on Jan. 27, 1967.
Columbia would be the second shuttle to be lost during a mission. On Jan. 28, 1986, seven crew members, including a New Hampshire schoolteacher, lost their lives in the explosion of the shuttle Challenger just after liftoff.
The disaster, which nearly ended the shuttle program, occurred seventy-three seconds after the shuttle lifted off. The spacecraft disintegrated in the sky and all crew members, including New Hampshire teacher Christa McAuliffe, were killed while millions watched on live television.
A series of investigations ultimately determined that a gas leak in the right booster rocket was blamed for the Challenger blast. In the explosion, the crew module separated intact from the fireball, went into a 2½-minute free fall from 50,000 feet and plunged into the sea.
McAuliffe was selected from among more than 11,000 teachers who applied for the Challenger mission. She was chosen by NASA in 1984 and took a leave of absence that fall to train for the mission.
NASA put the shuttle program on hold after the Challenger accident until 1988. The agency has put the odds of a catastrophic accident during launch - the most dangerous part of any shuttle mission - at 1 in 438.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.