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Subject: Remains of shuttle crew found

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Date Posted: February 02, 2003 7:43:40 EDT

As investigators began working toward an explanation of the fiery breakup of the space shuttle Columbia, officials in a 900-square-mile swath of Texas and Louisiana struggled to cordon off and protect pieces of wreckage that had slammed into farmers' fields, parking lots and backyards.

Columbia, streaking across a bright blue sky at about 3.5 miles a second on Saturday morning, came apart as it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere, barely 15 minutes before it was to have landed at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Columbia's crew of six Americans and one Israeli - Col. Ilan Ramon, a former fighter pilot who had become a hero in his homeland in the 16 days that Columbia was in space - were killed.

Officials said they had recovered some remains of all seven astronauts. But they had no immediate explanation for why Columbia, a stalwart performer on more than two dozen missions over 22 years, disintegrated about 38 miles above Earth as it raced toward the scheduled conclusion of a mission that NASA said had gone well. Sean O'Keefe, the NASA administrator, said that a panel of safety officials from other federal agencies and the military had been named to investigate. That group will be led by Harold W. Gehman, a retired admiral who was a co-chairman of the commission that investigated the attack on the American destroyer Cole in Yemen three years ago.

In addition to the commission led by Admiral Gehman, NASA announced that it would conduct its own investigation. And the House Science Committee also plans an inquiry. Representative Sherwood L. Boehlert, a Republican from upstate New York, is the chairman of the committee, which oversees NASA.

One focus for the investigators was possible damage to heat-resistant tiles on the left wing, which NASA officials said had been struck by insulation that broke loose during liftoff on Jan. 16. NASA said the first indication of trouble on Saturday was the loss of temperature sensor readings in that wing. The insulation apparently hit the bottom of the wing, which the astronauts could not see. Nor could they lower a camera there to send images back to Earth _ Columbia carried no robotic arm.

NASA officials had analyzed the videotapes of Columbia's liftoff and discounted potential damage from the insulation. ``It did not represent a safety concern,'' Ron D. Dittemore, the shuttle program manager, said at a briefing on Saturday. But while other experts cautioned that it was too soon to draw conclusions about what went wrong, some speculated that the insulation might have caused a cascade of problems leading to the destruction of the spacecraft.

Tiles have caused headaches on other shuttles. Atlantis returned from a four-day mission in 1988 with heavy damage to several hundred tiles. NASA said then that insulation from the nose cap had broken off 85 seconds after liftoff. And last year, NASA delayed another Atlantic launching while workers with heat lamps baked moisture out of 600 tiles that remained damp after three months _ Atlantis had been drenched while on the ground at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California. The concern was that any wet tiles would freeze and break off as Atlantis climbed into space on its next flight.

The Columbia was the oldest orbiter in the shuttle fleet, and, as in plane crashes, one question is likely to be whether metal fatigue contributed to the disaster. NASA has three other manned spacecraft, which will be grounded while the Columbia investigation continues.

In the areas where debris from Columbia rained down, officers used four-wheel-drive vehicles and satellite tracking devices and even horses as they tried to track down every piece of potential evidence. Then they had to find ways to safeguard what they found until it could be collected for the investigators to study. There were reports of looting in Nacogdoches County in Texas, where the debris was thickest. But there were no immediate arrests.

Nor were injuries reported from debris that smashed through a roof and splashed into a reservoir there. But Sue Kennedy, the county's emergency management coordinator, told The Associated Press that 70 people had gone to two hospitals because they had touched items on the ground. NASA has repeatedly warned the public not to do so because the debris may be covered with toxic residue.

The hunt for debris came as Americans mourned the astronauts killed in the second loss of a space shuttle in 17 years. President Bush, who invoked religious imagery more than once in a brief speech from the Cabinet Room on Saturday, paid tribute to the crew's ``courage and daring and idealism.''

``The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth,'' he said, ``yet we can pray that all are safely home.'' Of the five men and two women aboard Columbia, four had never flown in space before.

In addition to Colonel Ramon, Israel's first astronaut, Columbia's crew included Col. Rick D. Husband of the Air Force, its commander; the mission pilot, Cmdr. William C. McCool of the Navy; Lt. Col. Michael P. Anderson of the Air Force, the payload commander in charge of the science equipment; Dr. Kalpana Chawla, an aerospace engineer; and two Navy doctors, Capt. David M. Brown and Cmdr. Laurel Salton Clark. They completed more than 80 scientific experiments during their time in orbit.

The astronauts were mourned at church services today as ministers struggled to help worshipers come to terms with the disaster. Pope John Paul II prayed for the seven victims during a Mass in Rome, saying ``the new pain of the tragic explosion'' had ``provoked strong emotions in all of us.'' He also urged worshipers to pray for the astronauts' families.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia sent a message of sympathy to President Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel. Mr. Putin told Mr. Bush that Russia was ``all the more sensitive to this tragedy'' because of the close cooperation in space exploration between the United States and Russia.

Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar of Spain telephoned Mr. Bush, and President Thomas Kleistl of Austria and Prime Minister Leszek Miller of Poland sent condolence messages.

It was difficult to assess how large a setback the loss of Columbia would pose for the shuttle program. NASA officials said that future shuttle flights _ including the next one, scheduled for March _ would have to wait while scientists mined data from NASA computers for clues to what went wrong. That will take time. The final report on what destroyed the Challenger in 1986 was issued nearly five months after the disaster. But the next shuttle flight was not until 1988. Since then, NASA has sought to make safety paramount.

Russia went ahead with the launching of an unmanned supply capsule bound for the International Space Station today. But a spokesman for Russia's space agency told Reuters that construction work on the $95 billion dollar station would stop until American shuttles which had carried heavy equipment to the space station were flying again. Until then, depending on Russian spacecraft two American astronauts and a Russian cosmonaut had been scheduled to leave next month, when a new crew was scheduled to arrive aboard the shuttle Atlantis.

The accident turned a weekend that had begun in giddy anticipation into one of shock in the United States and in Israel. Relatives and friends of the crew had been standing beside the space center's runway in Central Florida, waiting to welcome the astronauts. Colonel Ramon's father was in a television studio in Israel when cameras caught sight of what appeared to be a normal re-entry.

"Everything from a flight control perspective was perfect" as Columbia began descending from orbit more than 100 miles above the Earth, until shortly before 9 a.m. Eastern time, Mr. Dittemore said.

That was when NASA controllers noticed a problem with temperature sensors in Columbia's left wing, which had been struck by insulating foam shortly after liftoff. In Columbia's final minutes on Saturday, readings from the sensors simply stopped coming in. "It's as if someone just cut the wire," Mr. Dittemore said.

Tire pressure readings for the shuttle's landing gear disappeared next, followed by indications of "excessive structural heating." The chief flight director, Milt Heflin, said that one of eight sensors sent a reading that the astronauts saw on their cockpit displays. The astronauts, apparently following their usual procedure in acknowledging a reading of some concern, Mr. Heflin said.

Then a controller in Houston said, "We did not copy your last."

"Roger," came the reply, followed by a syllable that sounded like "uh." Then there was silence, as if the radio transmission had been cut off in midsentence.

That was the last that NASA heard from the shuttle. The controllers could not tell from their computers and their radar screens, but the truth was evident to anyone looking skyward: Columbia had broken up, and pieces were falling away from the body of the orbiter as it hurtled toward Earth. A 3-foot-by-4-foot piece that landed in a parking lot behind a bank and another chunk that slammed into a cemetery in Nacogdoches. An astronaut's flight patch landed in one field, an astronaut's helmet in another. Chunks of metal poked through the roof of a barn.

Television networks broadcast videotape from Texas stations that showed Columbia's single vapor trail dividing into several white streaks in the sky. But there were indications that Columbia's problems may have begun hundreds of miles away, as Columbia descended over the Pacific Ocean and California.

Gene Blevins, a freelance photographer in Van Nuys, Calif., had driven 250 miles north to what he believed would be the best vantage point. He set up two cameras with wide-angle lenses and watched as Columbia whizzed by, a bright light about 40 miles in the sky.

"Underneath it was something reddish and little pieces, like a meteor breaking up as it comes in red molten rock, like what comes out of a volcano," Mr. Blevins said in an interview. "Then I saw this big red flare drop from underneath it. It stayed red for a second, disappeared. I thought, `Oh, that didn't look right.' "

Officials said that it could take months to find the debris, which was spread in an arc from the flatlands near Dallas to the hilly pine woods of Louisiana. Much of it turned up in tiny towns that survive on farming and timber. One piece of tile fell within 75 miles of Mr. Bush's ranch in Crawford, Tex. Farther east, in Hemphill and in Sabine County, there were reports that bones had been found. And in Louisiana, officials said that a piece the size of a compact car had sunk into a reservoir.

As the search for potential evidence from the accident continued, grieving friends and relatives of Colonel Ramon arrived in Houston, NASA's Mission Control. "We are wrapped up in our grief now," said Hudit Keren, a family friend.

Daniel Ayalon, the Israeli ambassador to United States, landed there today and planned to meet with NASA officials. He said Israel would find a way to memorialize Colonel Ramon.

Asked if the accident had made him doubt the American space program, he said: "No, not at all. This event has galvanized the two countries together. We have full trust in NASA."

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