| Kalpana Chawla and the rest of the Columbia crew on their way to the launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center on the day of the lift-off. (AFP)
Washington, Feb. 1: Kalpana Chawla, who travelled more than any other Indian in history, met with a tragic, fiery end to her life when America’s space shuttle, Columbia, in which she was an astronaut, broke up and crashed over Texas only minutes before it was to land in Florida.
Israel’s first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, an air force pilot, perished in the tragedy along with Chawla and five other crew members of the ill-fated space flight.
President George W. Bush interrupted his war council in Camp David and returned to White House where he called an emergency “domestic event” conference. US flags at the White House and other government buildings flew at half mast as Americans came to terms with the weekend tragedy.
It occurred almost to the day 17 years ago when US space shuttle, Challenger, exploded shortly after lift-off on January 28, 1986. On January 27, 1967, a fire on board the Apollo spacecraft killed three astronauts.
This is the first accident of a space vehicle during its descent to earth or landing in 42 years since Americans launched a man into space.
Nasa flight controllers lost communication with Columbia at 9 am local time. At the same time, residents in north Texas heard a deafening bang which shook houses in a large area.
Video pictures tracking the space flight shown on television then displayed what looked like falling debris. Nasa quickly declared an emergency and warned residents of Texas to beware of falling objects.
Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, who was alerted within minutes, communicated his sympathy to Bush, one of the first world leaders to do so.
On the fatal flight, Chawla carried mementos from her school and college in India as well as from the Aero Club of India.
In a supreme irony, the space shuttle carrying the first Israeli astronaut crashed in a place called Palestine in Texas.
Because the Israeli astronaut was on the flight, there was unprecedented security. Also because of Ramon’s presence, there was speculation immediately after the crash that the space shuttle may have been a terrorist target. These were subsequently dismissed as mere rumours.
At the shuttle’s landing strip at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, wives, husbands, children and other relatives of the astronauts who were waiting for them were gathered together by Nasa officials and taken to a secluded place after communication with Columbia was lost.
“A contingency for the space shuttle has been declared,” mission controllers gravely announced over loudspeakers as they were unable to contact Columbia, Nasa’s oldest shuttle, which had undertaken 28 flights in all. The flight with Chawla, which lifted off on January 16, was the 113th flight in the shuttle programme, launched in 1981.
It was revealed yesterday that shortly after the lift-off of the latest flight, a piece of insulating foam on Columbia’s external fuel tank fell off and apparently hit its left wing. Nasa officials, however, said damage to the wing was considered minor.