Seven die in shuttle tragedy

SEVEN astronauts – including the first from Israel – died today when the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up on its approach to landing in Florida.The disaster happened shortly before 3pm British time as the space shuttle came into land after a 16-day routine trip into space.

SEVEN astronauts – including the first from Israel – died today when the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up on its approach to landing in Florida.

The disaster happened shortly before 3pm British time as the space shuttle came into land after a 16-day routine trip into space.

Nasa lost communication with space shuttle Columbia as the ship soared over Texas several minutes before landing this morning.

Today's disaster is the second to hit the Space Shuttle programme, and comes almost exactly 16 years after the Columbia's sister shuttle Challenger blew up on take-off.

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The shuttle lost contact with mission control as it was preparing to land. It was 40 miles up over Dallas in Texas.

It was unclear whether it had blown up on re-entry or disintegrated, but NASA officials admitted there was no chance of anyone surviving the disaster.

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The shuttle had taken off on January 16, and it had appeared that some of the heat-proof tiles, designed to protect the craft at re-entry, had come off.

Only yesterday experts at NASA had said they were confident it was safe despite this problem.

There had been security fears about the flight because of the presence of the first Israeli astronaut on board, but American president George W. Bush today said terrorism did not seem to have been a factor.

Columbia – the oldest space shuttle which first went into space in 1981 – was at an altitude of 200,700ft travelling at 12,500 mph (20,113 kph) when mission control lost contact.

Today's disaster thrust the spotlight back on the US space programme which has become almost routine – this was the 111th space shuttle flight in 22 years.

After the Challenger disaster, flights were grounded for a year while lessons were learned.

Reporters at the landing strip today were ordered away seven minutes after the scheduled touchdown with still no sign of the shuttle.

In 42 years of human space flight, Nasa has never lost a space crew during landing or the ride back to orbit. In 1986 space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after lift-off.

Security had been tight for the 16-day scientific research mission that included the first Israeli astronaut.

Ilan 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 the launch, but also for Columbia's landing.

Space agency officials feared his presence might make the shuttle more of a terrorist target.

On launch day, a piece of insulating foam on the external fuel tank came off during lift-off and was believed to have struck the left wing of the shuttle.

Nasa said as late as yesterday that the damage to the thermal tiles was believed to be minor and posed no safety concern during the fiery descent through the atmosphere.

The shuttle, which authorities had feared would be a terrorist target, was also carrying six Americans.

Fifteen minutes after the expected landing time, and with no word from the shuttle, Nasa announced that search and rescue teams were being mobilised in the Dallas and Fort Worth areas.

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 a separate place.

Nasa, while not saying the shuttle had exploded, broken up or crashed, warned that any debris found in the area should be avoided and could be hazardous.

There were reports of debris seen falling.

Leroy Cain, the lead flight director in Mission Control, had assured reporters yesterday that engineers had concluded that any damage to the wing was considered minor and posed no safety hazard.

Piers Sellers, the British-born astronaut who became only the third Briton to go into space, today spoke of his shock at hearing that Nasa feared the Shuttle Columbia was lost.

The 47-year-old, who is originally from Crowborough, East Sussex, was watching events unfold in the skies just months after returning from a similar mission on board the shuttle Atlantis.

Clearly distressed, he said: "Three or four of my friends are on board.

"We don't know the details, what's happening or the causes. But it's obvious that the vehicle broke up during entry and we can't say much more than that. The vehicle is lost.

Dr Sellers completed an 11-day mission to the international space station in the Earth's orbit last October.

In doing so, the scientist followed in the footsteps of Helen Sharman and

Michael Foale, two other British-born astronauts to launch into orbit.

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