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Space shuttle Columbia broke up just minutes before it was scheduled to land this morning, killing all seven astronauts on board.
Carrying the first Israeli astronaut and six Americans, Columbia was supposed to land at the Kennedy Space Center at 9:16 a.m. ET. The shuttle and its crew were coming home after a 16-day scientific mission.
NASA immediately declared a "contingency" and reported that communication and tracking of the shuttle was lost at 9 a.m. at an altitude of about 203,000 feet (62,000 meters) in the area above north central Texas. The shuttle was traveling about 12,500 miles (20,000 kilometers) per hour.
Television stations showed images of falling debris and interviewed witnesses who said they had heard two loud bangs. They also said local authorities received numerous reports of burning debris falling to the ground along at least a hundred miles of the shuttle's flight path.
"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, at a news conference five hours after the shuttle was lost.
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said the accident was not caused by anything or anyone on the ground.
The astronauts aboard Columbia were commander Rick Husband, 45, co-pilot William McCool, 41, and mission specialists David Brown, 46, Kalpana Chawla, 41, Laurel Clark, 41, and Michael Anderson, 43. The Israeli astronaut was Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon, 48, his country's first citizen to make the journey into space.
Family of the astronauts waiting at the Kennedy Space Center were gathered from the landing strip and taken to a secluded location, according to news reports. Six of the seven astronauts were married, and five of them had children. President Bush spoke to the families before he addressed the nation.
Bush returned to the White House from Camp David when informed of the loss of Columbia. "Columbia is lost; there are no survivors," Bush said at the White House. "In an age when space flight has come to seem almost routine, it is easy to overlook the dangers of travel by rocket, and the difficulties of navigating the fierce outer atmosphere of the Earth. These astronauts knew the dangers, and they faced them willingly, knowing they had a high and noble purpose in life," he said.
NASA warned that any debris that is located in the area that may be related to the space shuttle should be avoided and may be hazardous as a result of toxic propellants used aboard the shuttle. The location of any possible debris should immediately be reported to local authorities.
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