By Kira Cluff
Six Americans and the first Israeli astronaut were lost Saturday after space shuttle Columbia broke apart during reentry over Texas, 16 minutes before they were scheduled to land in Florida.
At 9 a.m., Mission Control lost all contact with the shuttle. CNN reports residents in eastern Texas reported hearing “a big bang.”
According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Web site communication was lost with the shuttle at approximately 9:00 a.m. EST while the shuttle was 203,000 feet (38.5 miles) above Texas.
Television footage showed a bright light streak across the sky tailed by a line of smoke. Watch video.
Radar screens suggest the debris field will stretch as far west as New Mexico and as far east Louisiana.
“It”s gone,” said a senior U.S. official as quoted by the Associated Press.
NASA has yet to release information on what they think may have caused the disas-ter.
Major news networks report the U.S. flag next to the countdown clock at Kennedy Space Center, was lowered to half-staff.
NASA Administrator Sean O”Keefe held a press conference at noon CST urging any-one who finds pieces of the wreckage to not touch or attempt to move them?instead they are asked to contact local officials.
He emphasized that at this time NASA does not believe that the tragedy was caused by ?anyone or anything on the ground.?
?They dedicated their lives to pushing back the scientific frontiers for all of us.? O?Keefe said. ?And they did it with a happy heart and with great enthusiasm.? Watch NASA announcement.
Barbara Star, CNN?s reporter from the pentagon reports that military personnel have been mustered from Ford Hood, Texas, to perform search and recovery missions.
Military police have been sent out to secure debris sites and impound any evidence or remains they may find.
President Bush said the entire crew was dead. He also offered words of condolence and comfort to the family. Bush also said the space program would go on. Related story Bush announcement. Watch Bush announcement. Transcript of Bush announcement.
At the time of the incident, Bush was traveling to the presidential retreat at Camp David. He immediately turned the motorcade around and started back to the White House where he was to meet with Israeli officials later Saturday.
Columbia was the oldest and heaviest space shuttle in the fleet. This was its 28th flight. It first flew in 1981.
Three days ago, the nation commemorated the loss of seven Americans when space shuttle Challenger exploded a few minutes after lift off on Jan. 28, 1986.
NASA reported earlier this month that a piece of insulating foam on its external fuel tank came off shortly after Columbia lifted from Cape Canaveral. The piece was believed to have hit the left wing of the shuttle. Leroy Cain, the lead flight director in Mission Control, told reporters Friday that engineers discounted any damage to the wing saying it would pose no safety hazard.
Only three of the seven astronauts had flown in space before, the shuttle”s commander, Rick Husband, Michael Anderson, and Kalpana Chawla. The other four were first-time fliers: pilot William McCool, David Brown, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon.
Ramon was Israel”s first astronaut and was flying his first mission in space.
Columbia would have landed in Florida at 9:16 a.m. CST.