CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Feb. 1 (UPI) — Space shuttle Columbia and its seven-member crew, including Israel’s first astronaut Ilan Ramon, were lost as the shuttle broke up upon return to Earth Saturday following a 16-day space research mission.

The last radio call to the crew was a report from Mission Control about a shuttle tire pressure warning.

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.

Ground control teams in Houston lost tracking and radio contact with the shuttle at 9 a.m. ET. The spaceship was soaring at about 12,500 mph at an altitude of about 203,000 feet over north Central Texas when communications ceased.

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.

President George W. Bush was briefed at the presidential retreat in Camp David, Md., and was preparing to convene domestic and military committees that may be involved in the shuttle emergency.

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.

Wary of becoming a target for terrorists, Columbia lifted off on Jan. 16 under tight security. NASA said it took no additional security steps in light of the inclusion of an Israeli aboard the shuttle. Enhanced security was implemented following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.

NASA mission control teams secured their flight notes and telemetry data in anticipation of an thorough investigation into the cause of the shuttle’s demise.

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 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 mission was the first of six planned for this year, with the remainder of the flights devoted to space station assembly.

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 has 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.

There has been no determination on what caused Columbia to fall from the sky. Video taken during the shuttle’s launch showed what appeared to be a piece of foam insulation falling from Columbia’s fuel tank and striking the orbiter’s left wing near its leading edge.

Flight Director Leroy Cain said during a press conference on Friday engineers had studied the situation and had no concerns as they prepared for the landing.

“We haven’t changed anything with respect to our (landing) trajectory design. It will be a nominal, standard trajectory,” Cain said.

Copyright 2003 by United Press International. All rights reserved.

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