By DAVID BALLINGRUD, KATHRYN WEXLER, ALISA ULFERTS and ANITA KUMAR
CAPE CANAVERAL -- Seventeen years after a tragedy that shocked and humbled a nation, NASA again must divide its time between grieving and investigating a terrible failure.
"The Columbia is lost," a solemn President Bush said after telephoning the families of the astronauts. "The same creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today. The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth, but we can pray they are safely home."
Television footage showed a bright light followed by white smoke plumes streaking across a brilliant, blue sky. Debris appeared to break off into separate balls of light as it continued downward.
The disaster jarred a nation still dealing with the scars of 9/11 and contemplating a possible war against Iraq. It also raised anew questions about a space program struggling to redress management and budget problems.
NASA had no immediate explanation for the tragedy, but said it was checking the possibility that a piece of insulation that broke loose had damaged Columbia's left wing during liftoff Jan. 16.
NASA confirmed the loss just after noon. Flags at the agency's launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center were lowered to half-staff. The families of the astronauts were hurried away and later taken to Houston.
Throughout the day, bits of machinery and pieces of metal were found strewn across a wide area of Texas and Louisiana. One metal piece crashed through the roof of a dentist's office. Some human remains reportedly were found on a rural road.
Police and NASA officials warned residents the shuttle debris could be toxic and should not be touched.
NASA promised a thorough and independent investigation, but it could be a long time before the space agency has a clear idea of what went wrong. The space shuttles carry no "black box" flight recorders as airliners do, and there were no NASA cameras making a careful record of the event, as they do during liftoff.
In recent months, some of NASA's own leaders have joined federal and congressional investigators in warning that a catastrophic accident, such as the one Saturday, could be expected if technical expertise and the shuttle fleet continued to deteriorate.
Analysts in and out of government say that NASA has lost vital personnel to downsizing and retirement, with a commensurate loss of technical expertise and crucial skills. The agency also has been stalled in its multibillion-dollar effort to replace the shuttle fleet.
What went wrong?
All appeared normal as the Columbia crew prepared for re-entry Saturday, said Ron Dittemore, shuttle program manager. Lovely weather and happy families were waiting at the Kennedy Space Center landing facility.
Columbia began its descent from orbit about 45 minutes before re-entry, firing its engines in a braking maneuver over the Indian Ocean. During the hourlong descent, the shuttle was executing a series of wide, sweeping turns to reduce speed. During that part of the mission, temperatures on the outside of the spacecraft reach 3,000 degrees because of frictional heating from the atmosphere.
The shuttle's hydraulic system is crucial to the descent and landing, taking steering commands from flight control computers to adjust the spacecraft's rudder and flaps.
The computers have to get it right.
"The re-entry is a very difficult part (of the flight)," said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who was at Gasparilla in Tampa when he received word of the crash. He flew on Columbia in 1986. "If the nose is too low, you burn up. If the tail is too low, you burn up.
"You've got to have the right angle when you re-enter the earth's atmosphere or else the heat is not going to be distributed over the thickest tiles."
The first clue of approaching tragedy came at 8:53 a.m. when engineers in Mission Control noticed a sudden loss of temperature readings in the hydraulic system in the left wing.
At 8:56 a.m., signals from the sensors in the left main landing gear ended, too, and Mission Control sent a notice to the crew. Milt Heflin, chief flight director, said the crew acknowledged the signal, but no one thought it was a problem. Such temperature reading losses have been seen before.
NASA spokesman James Hartsfield continued with routine landing reports, noting that the speeding craft was streaking across the New Mexico-Texas border at an altitude of 40 miles and a speed of 13,200 mph. Columbia, he said, was only 1,400 miles and less than 20 minutes from landing.
There was a muffled blurt on the radio from the crew.
Capsule communicator Charlie Hobaugh broke a long silence by calling to the crew.
"Columbia, Houston," he said, "we see your tire pressure message and we did not copy your last."
"Roger," said Husband. "Uh, buh. . . ."
The communication was cut abruptly, the final word never finished. It was followed by static.
At about the same time, all data signals abruptly stopped. The time was about 9 a.m. EST, Heflin said. "That was when we lost all vehicle data. That's when we began to know that we had a bad day."
Late Saturday, investigators focused on Columbia's left wing and the possibility that its thermal tiles were damaged by a piece of debris during liftoff.
A minute into Columbia's launch Jan. 16, a chunk of insulating foam peeled away from the external fuel tank and struck the ship's left wing.
Friday, the day before Columbia's scheduled landing, NASA's lead flight director, Leroy Cain, declared the launch-day incident to be no safety threat. And an extensive engineering analysis had concluded that any damage to Columbia's thermal tiles would be minor, he said.
NASA's thinking was different Saturday.
"As we look at that now in hindsight, we can't discount that there might be a connection," Dittemore said a few hours after the tragedy. "But we have to caution that we can't rush to judgment . . . a lot of things in this business look like the smoking gun, but turn out not to be close."
Experts list at least six possible causes of the disaster. In order of decreasing likelihood, they are:
Problems with the shuttle's tile heat shield, perhaps on the left wing.
An explosion of some of the shuttle's fuels and oxidizers, which are under high pressure.
The collapse of some part of the shuttle's structure. Columbia is the oldest and heaviest of the shuttles. It had just re-entered the atmosphere and had reached the point at which it was subjected to the highest temperatures.
Dittemore said there was nothing that the astronauts could have done in orbit to fix damaged thermal tiles and nothing that flight controllers could have done to safely bring home a severely scarred shuttle, given the extreme temperatures of re-entry.
Faulty navigation for the fiery re-entry, possibly caused by a computer problem that led to an improper angle of descent.
The impact of a speeding rock or space debris.
Terrorism, perhaps by a technician at the launching site. Authorities said there was no indication of this, however.
At 207,135 feet, the shuttle was out of range of any surface-to-air missile, one senior government official told the Associated Press. Security was extraordinarily tight on this mission because Ilan Ramon, Israel's first astronaut, was among the crew members.
Dittemore acknowledged that an answer may never be found. "It's a distinct possibility," he said.
Nevertheless, NASA promised to fly again.
"We must find out what happened and move on," said a shaken Bill Readdy, NASA's associate administrator of spaceflight and a former shuttle commander. "We cannot let their sacrifices be in vain."
"We're going to get together and fix this problem. We're going to launch shuttles again," said Dittemore at a Houston news conference.
But not for a while.
There will "certainly be a hold on future flights until we get ourselves established and find the root cause of the disaster," he said.
Within minutes of losing contact with Columbia, NASA officials began preserving data needed to determine what caused the spacecraft to be destroyed.
Within hours an independent board had been appointed to investigate the disaster and teams of experts were dispatched to recover the debris.
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said his agency will conduct its own review, but that an independent board of representatives from the Air Force, Navy, Transportation Department and other federal agencies will examine the evidence independently, an approach similar to that taken after the 1986 explosion of the Challenger shuttle.
Sen. Nelson also called for an independent congressional inquiry.
"This doesn't come at a good time," he said. "NASA has been starved for money over the past decade, but you can be assured there are people on Capitol Hill who believe space exploration fulfills a character of the American spirit. We are adventurers and we don't want to ever give that up. If we do, we will become a second-rate country."
Debris across states
An arc of debris rained down on roofs, fields and parking lots from Dallas to Mississippi early Saturday morning, leaving residents to wonder if they were experiencing an earthquake or a bomb.
In rural west Texas, residents awoke to thundering sonic booms. Windows reverberated and some shattered. Wavy white vapors hung in the sky, and some residents in the path of the debris complained of an odor of fuel.
In the historic town of Nacogdoches, not far from the Louisiana border, everyone seemed to know someone who had found a metal object that fell from the sky. Local law enforcement departments were flooded by hundreds of reports of debris.
Several residents said late Saturday that they had waited all day for someone to cart away the objects, but officials had told them they were overwhelmed.
In the town square, a piece of corrugated metal the size of a car door smashed onto a parking lot beside a Masonic temple. Authorities cordoned off the area, and spectators with cameras and toddlers in tow quickly arrived in droves.
"We thought a commercial airliner went down," said Randy Johnson, owner of Johnson's Furniture Store, a block away. "You can tell from the smell something exploded."
A few hours later, Johnson climbed to the roof of his store and found a piece of gray metal, 8 by 8 inches.
'If they look on top all these buildings," he said, gesturing to the square, 'they'll find stuff up there."
Tim Freeman, a carpenter who lives 10 miles east of Nacogdoches, heard the bangs and looked out his window to see a large object falling near his pond.
"The horses, the cows, even the fish were going crazy," said Freeman, 50.
It appeared to be a metal porthole, he said, 4 feet in diameter. Another heavy object was immersed in the water. A sheriff's deputy came out to look but left the items where they fell, warning, " 'Hey, stay away from that,' " Freeman said.
Authorities told residents not to touch the debris, and there were scattered reports of people seeking medical treatment for contact with the items.
Following procedures mapped out for such a catastrophe, NASA called on military search-and-rescue personnel in ships, helicopters and other aircraft to search for survivors.
In Rice, Texas, a tiny community along Interstate 45 southeast of Dallas, onlookers gathered at the high school to behold a 6-inch-by-6-inch piece of rust-colored tile from the Columbia.
"The only reason they saw it was it was smoking," said Rice High School secretary Terri Starnes, 48.
Starnes said she and neighbors were stunned that the shuttle could explode and that a piece of it would land in the driveway of the high school.
"For it to happen so tragically," Starnes's voice trailed off before she smiled sadly. "For history to happen in such a small community."
There was at least one report of human remains recovered -- in Hemphill, Texas, near the Louisiana line, a hospital employee on his way to work reported finding what appeared to be a charred torso, thigh bone and skull on a rural road near what was believed to be other debris.
Columbia was not equipped with an ejection system for its astronauts, a safety system the agency's independent Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel had recently urged NASA to add as soon as possible.
But like NASA's other shuttle orbiters, Columbia was equipped with a rudimentary bailout system that required the spacecraft, though crippled, to achieve a level gliding flight and an altitude of less than 20,000 feet before it could be used.
The bailout system was not designed for a sudden breakup in the atmosphere.
-- Times staff writers Chuck Murphy, Mary Jacoby and Bill Adair contributed to this report. Information from Times wires was also used.
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