Seven astronauts including
"These astronauts knew the dangers and they faced them willingly, knowing they had a high and noble purpose in life," President Bush said in a nationwide television address. He added: "The cause in which they died will continue. Our journey into space will go on."
The loss of the shuttle and the crew comes 17 years after the Challenger accident on
The accident follows by 36 years the first fatal
NASA had 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.
Today was a very stark reminder that this is a very risky endeavor, pushing back the frontiers in outer space," Readdy said. "And after 113 (shuttle) flights, unfortunately people have a tendency to look at it as something that is more or less routine. Well I can assure you it is not."
He added: "I have to say as the one responsible for shuttle and (space) station within NASA, I know the people within NASA did everything possible preparing for this flight to make it as perfect as possible. My promise to the crew and to the crew families is that the investigation we have just launched will find the cause, will fix it, and then we'll move on."
Columbia Commander Col. Rick Husband
Commander Rick Husband, 45, was an Air Force colonel from
"It's been pretty much a lifelong dream and just a thrill to be able to get to actually live it out," the married father of two said in an interview before
Shuttle Pilot Cmdr. William McCool
Pilot William McCool, 41, was a Navy commander who grew up in
McCool was an experienced Navy pilot with more than 2,800 hours in flight. But two weeks into his first space trip, he was bursting with amazement.
"There is so much more than what I ever expected," McCool told National Public Radio on Jan. 30 from the space shuttle
McCool was married with three sons, ages 14, 19 and 22.
Shuttle Payload Commander Lt. Col. Michael Anderson
Payload commander Michael Anderson, 43, was the son of an Air Force man and grew up on military bases. He was flying for the Air Force when NASA chose him in 1994 as one of only a handful of black astronauts. He traveled to
The lieutenant colonel, who lived in
"I take the risk because I think what we're doing is really important. If you look at this research flight and if you really take an opportunity to look at each experiment ... the potential yield that we have is really tremendous," he said.
He added: "For me, it's the fact that what I'm doing can have great consequences and great benefits for everyone, for mankind."
Shuttle Columbia Engineer Dr. Kalpana Chawla
Kalpana Chawla, 41, emigrated to the
"That would be too far-fetched," the engineer had said. But "one thing led to another" and she was chosen as an astronaut after working at NASA's
Chawla was a heroine in
"When you look at the stars and the galaxy, you feel that you are not just from any particular piece of land, but from the solar system," Chawla said in a 1998 interview with the newspaper India Today.
On her only other spaceflight, in 1997, she made mistakes that sent science satellite tumbling out of control. Other astronauts had to go on spacewalk to capture it. NASA later acknowledged that the instructions to the crew may not have been clear.
"I stopped thinking about it after trying to figure out what are the lessons learned, and there are so many," she said. "After I had basically sorted that out, I figured it's time to really look at the future and not at the past."
Shuttle Columbia Pilot Capt. David Brown
David Brown, 46, was a Navy captain, pilot and doctor. He joined the Navy after a medical internship, then went on to fly the A-6E Intruder and F-18. He became an astronaut in 1996.
When asked in a recent interview about the risk of flying in space, Brown, who was single, said: "I made a decision that is part of my job, I would incur some real risk as a routine part of my job when I joined the Navy and started flying ... airplanes off of ships, particularly airplanes off of ships at night. And I think that was a decision that I made some years ago and the decision to go fly in space is just an extension of that."
Shuttle Columbia Physician Cmdr. Dr. Laurel Clark
Laurel Clark, 41, was a diving medical officer aboard submarines and then a flight surgeon before she became an astronaut in 1996. She had been on board
"I think my family has a fairly practical and pragmatic view of this whole thing, and that's that the actual launching into space is much more dangerous than any of the other security concerns," said Clark, who lived in
She added: "There's a lot of different things that we do during life that could potentially harm us and I choose not to stop doing those things."
Shuttle Columbia Payload Specialist Col. Ilan Ramon
Ilan Ramon, 48, was a colonel in
He served as a fighter pilot in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, flying F-16s and F-4s. He was chosen as
His wife, Rona, and their four children -- ages 5 to 15 -- live in Tel Aviv.
"I think the only thing that will worry me is the launch sequence and the systems and the launch, being launched on time. The tenseness is there because everybody wants to be launched on time with no failures. That's it. Once you're there, you're there," he said in a recent interview.
The sight of the shuttle breaking up above the Earth and sending a meteoric streak of debris across the sky was horrifyingly reminiscent of the Challenger disaster almost exactly 17 years ago to the day.
The seven crew members -- six Americans and the first Israeli to go into space -- were scheduled to touch down in just 16 minutes at
The president ordered flags to be lowered to half-staff at all government buildings.
The others were rookies, including Ramon, the 48-year-old Israeli Air Force colonel. A former fighter pilot who survived two wars, he carried into space a small pencil drawing titled "Moon Landscape" by Peter Ginz, a 14-year-old Jewish boy killed at
"The government of
Dr. Yael Barr of the Israeli Aerospace Medicine Institute was waiting at the landing strip for the astronauts' return.
"When the countdown clock, when it got to zero and then started going, instead of counting down, counting up and they were still not there, I told my friend, 'I have a bad feeling. I think they are gone.' And I was in tears," Barr said.