NASA says all seven crew members aboard the U.S. space shuttle Columbia are dead after the spacecraft disintegrated over Texas, minutes before it was scheduled to land in Florida Saturday.
U.S. space agency administrator Sean O'Keefe said it was a tragic day for NASA, the crew members' families and the nation. He pledged to do everything possible to determine the cause of the disaster. He said there was no indication the mishap was caused by anything on the ground. Mr. O'Keefe said the process to recover the bodies is under way.
Columbia was returning to earth after a 16-day scientific mission. It carried six Americans and the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon.
Television footage showed Columbia breaking apart over north-central Texas, and debris from the shuttle is being found on the ground in central Texas and possibly other states.
NASA officials are advising residents of Texas not to handle any debris from the 22-year-old shuttle. Texas residents say they heard a loud noise about the time the shuttle disappeared, shaking local homes. They say they saw flaming debris falling to earth.
NASA declared an emergency and mobilized search and rescue crews after communication was lost with Columbia earlier Saturday, as it prepared to land.
Security was tight at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the expected landing to prevent any possible terrorist attack. However, U.S. officials say there is no indication terrorism was involved, but the incident is being fully investigated.
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. Columbia was NASA's oldest shuttle and first flew in 1981.