The U.S. space agency NASA has mobilized search and rescue teams after the space shuttle Columbia apparently disintegrated in flames over Texas minutes before it was due to land in Florida.
NASA declared an emergency after communication was lost with the space shuttle Columbia Saturday, as it prepared to land with six American crew members and the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon.
Television footage over Texas showed multiple trails as the shuttle streaked across the sky, indicating that it had broken up. NASA officials are advising residents of Texas not to handle any debris from the shuttle.
There is no word on the fate of the seven crew members, or what caused the break up.
Security was tight at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the expected landing to prevent any possible terrorist attack. However, there is no indication terrorism was involved.
Columbia was returning after a 16-day scientific mission. In more than four decades of U.S. human space flight, NASA has never lost an astronaut during the descent and landing of a spacecraft. In January 1986, space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after lift-off.
The Columbia crew had completed more than 80 experiments that focused on weightlessness, advanced-technology development, and the health and safety of astronauts.