Feb. 1, 2003: Space shuttle Columbia disaster

The space shuttle broke apart as it reentered the Earth's atmosphere, killing all seven crew members.
3:38 | 01/19/18

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Transcript for Feb. 1, 2003: Space shuttle Columbia disaster
Good evening everybody I'm Peter Jennings of ABC news headquarters in the words of a flight director at Massey it has been a bad day. Seven astronauts have died their families shattered the space program has been dealt a terrible blow. The larger family of men and women in space exploration devastated. And the country has been reminded how dangerous it is and that for all of America's technological genius it doesn't always work. This morning just before 8 o'clock Texas time the Space Shuttle Columbia was just about to finish a picture perfect sixteen day scientific mission. The astronauts families were by the runway in Florida poised for a great reunion. Instead this was the picture that we all saw. Columbia was a 200000 feet going 121500. Miles an hour when it suddenly broke up under stress that we still do not understand. Sixteen. Minutes from home. We begin our field reporting with a ABC's Ned potter. That our federal Colombia Colombia was on the science mission that seven astronauts sixteen days seven the experiments. And were courageous group of people you could not have hoped to know. This morning the crew finished packing up for reentry landing planned for 9:16 this morning eastern time on the runway of Florida's Kennedy Space Center. At 8:15 AM they fired their engines to begin their return from orbit. This is mission control Houston shuttle landings are normally quiet but at 8:53 AM mission control it's also ought to aperture readings here along the left wing. A few minutes later there were more oddities apparently having to do with the landing gear on the left side at 8:59 AM the shuttle came over Texas still 39 miles high and moving at 121000 miles an hour. Mission control had its last contact with the crew. And we see your tire pressure messages and we did not stop your last. Oh. There was nothing more people on the ground so the streak of the shuttle breaking up. And and then then suddenly things started raining down out Scott. And they were didn't sound mica a bit rank ripping through the years. At 9:16 AM the scheduled landing time came and went. And ninth when he 9 AM NASA officially declared an emergency. And impounded all data for the investigations that will follow at 2 PM the president addressed the nation. These men and women assumed great risk in the service. To all humanity. In an age when space flight has come to seem almost routine. What went wrong some engineers wonder if the trouble really began a lift off. When some insulation came off the shuttle's big orange fuel tank and apparently struck the orbiters wing. The technical community get together and across the country looked at him and judged that to be. Acceptable. NASA quickly said there was no sign of terrorism. At this time we have new indications that the mishap was caused by anything or anyone on the ground. This satellite radar image shows parts of north Texas where most of the debris may have crashed to worth. But people as far west as California and you talked fought they also saw debris as the ship streaked overhead. Engineers say anything at this point is speculation. It seemed there was a sequence of events something that started with one event leading to another and another. The arrears notes saying what will come of the investigation. The chief flight directors when we have a bad day we find the problem and exit. Potter ABC news New York.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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