CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Feb. 1 (UPI) -- Seven astronauts including including Israel's first man in space died Saturday as the shuttle Columbia broke up on re-entry to Earth following a 16-day space research mission.
"These astronauts knew the dangers and they faced them willingly, knowing they had a high and noble purpose in life," President Bush said in a nationwide television address. He added: "The cause in which they died will continue. Our journey into space will go on."
The president ordered flags flown at half-staff on all federal buildings and military installations through Wednesday.
The disaster came 17 years after seven astronauts were killed when the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff in 1986.
In the small eastern Texas community of Hemphill, the FBI took custody of what appeared to be the remains of one stilll unidentified astronaut, Emergency Management Coordinator Bill Smith told United Press International.
He said several people were hospitalized in Sabine County after being either burned by picking up debris or because they were complaining of respiratory problems.
NASA ground control teams in Houston lost tracking and radio contact with Columbia at 9 a.m. EST. Witnesses across Texas heard a sonic boom -- normally heard when the shuttle re-enters the atmosphere and begins descending -- but then saw a flash and fiery streaks as debris fell to ground.
The spaceship was soaring at about 12,500 mph at an altitude of about 207,135 feet over north Central Texas when communications ceased, NASA said.
The last radio call to the crew was a report from Mission Control about a shuttle tire pressure warning.
In a briefing at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, NASA shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore cautioned that it was too early to say what caused the tragedy.
"I have to caution you that we cannot yet say what caused the loss of Columbia," Dittemore said. "It's still very early in our investigation and it's going to take us some time to work through the evidence, the analysis and clearly understand what the cause was."
Chief flight director Milt Heflin said starting about seven minutes before NASA lost all contact with the shuttle, controllers lost sensor data from the left wing, saw a temperature increase from sensors in the left main landing gear wheel well, and then lost readings from other sensors on the left wing.
Reporters asked whether a piece of foam insulation from the shuttle's external fuel tank that fell ino the spacecraft during launch could have been a factor.
Dittemore said NASA managers had evaluated the problem at the time of launch and did not believe it had damaged the shuttle -- but everything would be examined.
"We will be thorough, methodical" in finding a cause, he said.
Debris fell off the shuttle external fuel tanks during two of the last three launches. NASA already had set up a group to investigate the debris issue.
Dittemore urged caution to avoid jumping to conclusions.
"There are a lot of things in this business that look like a smoking gun, but then turn out to be not even close," he said.
NASA mission control teams secured their flight notes and telemetry data in anticipation of a thorough investigation into the cause of the shuttle's demise.
The presence of an Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon, on the mission heightened security for the launch and flight, but NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said there was nothing to indicate any act on the ground caused the disaster.
"At this time we have no indication this mishap was caused by anything or anyone on the ground," O'Keefe said during a briefing at the Kennedy Space Center.
He said internal and external review teams were being assembled. The external review board, comprising experts from federal agencies, will be led by someone outside the federal agencies, O'Keefe said.
"So we will be conducting both the internal activity as well as the external review immediately to ascertain the causes and the circumstances under which this tragedy occurred," O'Keefe said.
He also said Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge had been briefed and at his direction the Federal Emergency Management Agency was coordinating efforts to secure debris on the ground so it could be collected and studied.
"We urge anyone who believes they have discovered or found any material to stay away from it, and to please contact local officials," O'Keefe said.
O'Keefe said the happy anticipation of the crew's return quickly turned to concern, alarm and grief.
"The loss of this valiant crew is someting we will never be able to get over, and certainly the families of all of them we have assured we will do everything we can possibly do to guarantee that they work their way through this horrific tragedy."
Observers in Texas who could see the shuttle as it flew overhead enroute to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida reported debris falling from the sky.
"It looked just like the Mir breakup," said Stephen Clark, a contributor to spaceflightnow.com.
Search and rescue teams were alerted in Texas and residents were warned not to touch any debris, which could contain toxic substances, as the shuttle carries hazardous propellants and fuels.
O'Keefe briefed Bush shortly after contact with the shuttle was lost. Bush then returned to Washington from the presidential retreat in Camp David, Md.
A White House official, speaking on background, said there was no reason to believe the shuttle breakup was anything other than an accident. "There is no reason to believe there are any links to terrorism, but we are fully investigating," the official said.
Columbia lifted off on Jan. 16 under tight security. Enhanced security was implemented following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.
The mission was the first of six planned for this year, with the remainder of the flights devoted to space station assembly.
Police and witnesses said the debris appeared to be in a line from Dallas southeast to the Louisiana border.
Don Archer of Waco told NBC News he was videotaping the shuttle as it streaked overhead:
"It disappeared and seemed like it started breaking up. There was additional fire and smoke hanging in the sky. I didn't hear anything because I was concentrating on taking the video."
The mood was somber and anxious in Israel, where residents all over the country had tuned in as the Sabbath ended to watch live the landing of Israel's first and highly popular astronaut. President Ariel Sharon released a statement that said: "The state of Israel and its citizens are standing at this difficult hour at the sides of the astronauts' families, the Ramon family, the American people and its government in a prayer to the almighty."
A former Israeli air force commander, Avihu Binnun, declared, "The cooperation with the United States in space does not depend on one failure. There can always be failures. We come from an area where accidents happen and friends fall, and we know to continue living."
In Hebron, Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said he was speaking on behalf of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat when he offered "deepest condolences to the Israeli people" for the loss of Ramon. He also extended Palestinian regrets to the United States for the six Americans who were aboard Columbia.
In addition to Ramon, the crew included commander Rick Husband, pilot Willie McCool, flight engineer Kalpana Chawla, payload commander Michael Anderson and astronauts David Brown and Laurel Clark. Ramon, McCool, Brown and Clark were making their debut missions. Husband, Chawla and Anderson each had made one previous spaceflight.
The loss of the shuttle and the crew comes 17 years after the Challenger accident on Jan. 28, 1986, which claimed the lives of seven astronauts, including teacher in space Christa McAuliffe. The woman who trained alongside McAuliffe and served as her backup was to fly on Columbia's next mission this November.
The accident follows by 36 years the first fatal U.S. space program accident. On Jan. 27, 1967, three astronauts were killed in a flash fire during a test of the Apollo I space capsule. Killed were Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Edward H. White, and Roger B. Chaffee.
NASA had never lost a crew during landing, though a similar tragedy occurred in the Russian space program in 1971 when a returning Salyut space station crew died in a Soyuz capsule that depressurized during its return to Earth.
At a televised news conference Saturday, Bill Readdy, NASA associate administrator for space flight and a former astronaut, said the families of the Columbia crew had asked him to find out what went wrong, fix it and move on with the program.
"Today was a very stark reminder that this is a very risky endeavor, pushing back the frontiers in outer space," Readdy said. "And after 113 (shuttle) flights, unfortunately people have a tendency to look at it as something that is more or less routine. Well I can assure you it is not."
He added: "I have to say as the one responsible for shuttle and (space) station within NASA, I know the people within NASA did everything possible preparing for this flight to make it as perfect as possible. My promise to the crew and to the crew families is that the investigation we have just launched will find the cause, will fix it, and then we'll move on."
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