U.S. space shuttle Columbia, carrying first Israeli astronaut, exploded; Terrorist act ruled out
NASA declared an emergency after losing communication with space shuttle Columbia as the ship soared over Texas several minutes before its expected landing Saturday. The last contact with the shuttle was at 1400 GMT.
The shuttle was carrying the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon, and six Americans, and authorities had feared it would be a terrorist target. Fifteen minutes after the expected landing time, and with no word from the shuttle, NASA announced that search and rescue teams were being mobilized in Dallas and Fort Worth areas.
NASA warned that any debris found in the area should be avoided and could be hazardous. There were reports of debris seen falling.
On launch day, a piece of insulating foam on the external fuel tank came off during liftoff and was believed to have struck the left wing of the shuttle, AP reported.
A U.S. administration official said the shuttle's altitude made it "highly unlikely" that the it fell victim to a terrorist act.
Later in the day, U.S. President George W. Bush confirmed that all seven crew members aboard the space shuttle were killed.
Ramon, a colonel in Israel's air force, participated in 1981 in the Israeli air strike that destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor. (Albawaba.com)
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