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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Space Shuttle Columbia 'Is Lost'

APDebris from the Columbia streaking across the sky on Saturday. Amateur photographer Scott Lieberman shot the breakup of the shuttle from his backyard in Tyler, Texas.
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida -- High over Texas and just short of home, space shuttle Columbia fell to pieces, raining debris over hundreds of kilometers of countryside. Seven astronauts perished.

Saturday's catastrophe occurred 63 kilometers above the Earth, in the last 16 minutes of the 16-day mission as the spaceship re-entered the atmosphere and glided in for a landing in Florida. The day echoed one almost exactly 17 years before, when the Challenger space shuttle exploded.

"The Columbia is lost," said President George W. Bush, after telephoning the families of the astronauts to console them.

"The same creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today," Bush said. "The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth but we can pray they are safely home."

The loss of seven explorers of space's dark reaches -- shuttle commander Rick Husband, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, William McCool and Ilan Ramon -- brought grief to the nation.

The search for the cause began immediately. One focus: possible damage to Columbia's protective thermal tiles on the left wing from a flying piece of debris during liftoff on Jan. 16.

NASA chief Sean O'Keefe announced Sunday that Harold Gehman Jr., the retired Navy admiral who helped lead the Pentagon's inquiry into the USS Cole bombing, will head a special government commission investigating the Columbia disaster.

The commission will not emphasize "any pet theory or other approach" but will look into every aspect of the doomed flight, O'Keefe said on "Fox News Sunday."

NASA said the first indication of trouble Saturday was the loss of temperature sensors in the left wing's hydraulic system. The spacecraft had just re-entered the atmosphere and had reached the point at which it was subjected to the highest temperatures.

NASA officials said they suspected the wing was damaged on liftoff, but had felt there was no reason for concern.

The final radio transmission between Mission Control and the shuttle, at 9 a.m., gave little indication of any trouble. Mission Control radios: "Columbia, Houston, we see your tire pressure messages and we did not copy your last." Columbia's commander, Rick Husband, calmly responds: "Roger, uh, buh ..." For several seconds, the transmission goes silent. Then, there is static.

In 42 years of U.S. human spaceflight, there had never been an accident during the descent to Earth or landing.

Television footage showed a bright light followed by white smoke plumes streaking diagonally across the sky. Debris appeared to break off into separate balls of light as it continued downward.

"We saw it coming across the sky real bright and shiny and all in one piece. We thought it was the sun shining off an airplane," said Doug Ruby, who was driving along a Texas highway. "Then it broke up in about six pieces -- they were all balls of fire -- before it went over the tree line."

There were no reports of injuries on the ground when shreds of the shuttle showered down, smashing a rooftop, splashing into a reservoir and scattering across farms, homes and businesses.

Residents found chunks of debris across the city of Nacogdoches, Texas, and the surrounding region of pine forest about 200 kilometers northeast of Houston.

IA small tank rested on a runway at Nacogdoches airport. A steel rod with silver bolts was roped off behind yellow police tape in a yard. A piece of metal rested in a bank parking lot

Authorities urged the public to report any debris but not touch it for fear of contamination from toxic substances.

The Army sent in helicopters and soldiers to locate and guard bits of wreckage, which could be pivotal in determining the cause of the disaster.

In Hemphill, Texas, near the Louisiana state line, hospital employee Mike Gibbs reported finding what appeared to be a charred torso, thigh bone and skull on a rural road near what appeared to be other debris.

Billy Smith, an emergency coordinator for three East Texas counties, confirmed the find. "I wouldn't want anybody seeing what I saw," Gibbs said. "It was pretty gruesome."

Debris found in San Augustine County about 225 kilometers northeast of Houston included a charred astronaut's patch and a flight helmet.

Debris has been tracked in a 1,280-square-kilometer area but could be spread over a region three times that, said James Kroll, director of the Emergency Geospacial Mapping Center at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches.

The flight was the 113th in the shuttle program's 22 years and the 28th flight for Columbia, NASA oldest shuttle which was built in 1981 at a cost of about $1 billion.

Just in the past week, NASA observed the anniversary of its only two other space tragedies, the Challenger explosion on Jan. 28, 1986, and the Apollo spacecraft fire that killed three on Jan. 27, 1967.

 Major Iraqi newspapers reported the shuttle Columbia tragedy on their front pages on Sunday, but it appeared at the bottom, overshadowed by news of one of President Saddam Hussein's almost-nightly meetings with military commanders.

In the Babil newspaper, owned by Hussein's son Odai, the story was carried at the bottom of page one with an old color photo of a U.S. space shuttle. It continued on an inside page for almost a half-page, based on foreign news agency reports.

"Columbia Shuttle Crashed and the Crew Was Killed," read the headline low on the front page of Al-Thawra, the newspaper of Iraq's ruling Baath Party.

That article noted that one of the astronauts was a "Zionist" who had flown in the Israeli bombing attack in 1981 on Iraq's Tammouz reactor, which was believed to be key to an Iraqi nuclear bomb program. Israeil air force Colonel Ilan Ramon was a member of the shuttle crew.