NASA Says Remains of All 7 Astronauts Recovered, Then Retracts

If Ilan Ramon's body not found, then IDF likely to declare him a fallen soldier whose place of burial is unknown; army sending team to help identify Israeli astronaut's remains.

NASA flight crew operations director Bob Cabana told reporters Sunday that remains of all seven astronauts killed in the Columbia shuttle disaster had been recovered, but the space agency later issued a statement saying he "misspoke."

"Cabana says NASA has not confirmed that remains from all seven crewmembers have been found. He was misinformed about that subject."

Before the clarification, Cabana said NASA was working with the Israeli government to make sure the body of Ilan Ramon, Israel's first astronaut, was treated according to Jewish tradition.

In an unusual move Sunday, NASA agreed to allow an Israeli expert to participate in the examination and identification process with regard to the body parts found over the past two days in the area in which the shuttle crashed to earth.

The Israel Defense Forces' attache in the United States, Major General Moshe Ivri-Sukenik, noted that he had stressed to the NASA representatives the significance Israel and the Jewish religion placed on the identification of the body parts of astronaut Ilan Ramon and his burial in Israel, and therefore Israel wished to play an active role in the search and identification operation. (Israel's first astronaut: A tragedy beyond translation)

It remains unclear how the astronauts' bodies will be identified, but NASA does have DNA samples of the seven, together with additional identification signs that could assist in the process.

NASA disclosed for the first time Sunday that body parts had been found in the area of the crash site in eastern Texas. NASA did not comment on the condition of the remains found and whether it was possible to determine to which astronaut they belonged.

Responsibility for locating and identifying the body of the Israeli astronaut also falls on Israel's military representation in the United States, since Ilan Ramon was a colonel in the Israel Air Force.

Israeli officials emphasize supreme importance on locating Ramon's body The process of declaring Ramon a fallen soldier will take place in accordance with the existing IDF regulations, which also relate to cases in which the body of a fallen soldier is not found. Nevertheless, Israeli representatives emphasized Sunday the supreme importance placed on locating Ramon's body.

The IDF Rabbinate sent an expert with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel to Houston Sunday night to help in the process of identifying body parts of the astronauts.

If Ramon's body is not found, the IDF is likely to declare him a fallen soldier whose place of burial is unknown. The IDF's chief rabbi, Major General Israel Weiss, is authorized to make such a decision. In such a case, there will be no funeral, but an official ceremony of sorts would likely take place.

The IDF is still delaying its decision on how to mark the death of the Columbia crew until Ramon's status is determined. Discussions on the possibility of posthumously promoting Ramon to the rank of brigadier general are also still underway.

Chief Rabbi Yisrael Lau ruled that considering the circumstances, there was enough information to declare that Ilan Ramon had perished, and that his wife was free to remarry, even though his body had not been found.

"To our deep sorrow, the State of Israel has known many tragedies in the past, where many were killed and declared fallen, but their burial places remain unknown. This was the case with the destruction of the [Israel Navy ship] Eilat in October 1967, the loss of the [Israel Navy submarine] Dakar in 1968, and the 2001 World Trade Center tragedy. In all those cases, the widows received permission to remarry."

Special gov't team to be headed by man who probed USS Cole attack NASA announced Sunday that a special government commission to investigate the shuttle accident will be headed by Harold W. Gehman Jr., the retired Navy admiral who helped lead the Pentagon's inquiry into the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000.

Gehman's mission will be to sift through all the facts to determine what went wrong on the shuttle, space agency administrator Sean O'Keefe said.

As Israelis and Americans alike mourned the deaths of the crew members, the probe into the disaster resumed Sunday with officials searching for the remains of the shuttle that had showered debris across Texas and Louisiana.

Experts were focusing on possible damage to the shuttle's protective thermal tiles on the left wing from a flying piece of debris during liftoff on January 16.

NASA officials said Saturday that the first indication of trouble was the loss of temperature sensors in the left wing's hydraulic system.

Shortly after Columbia lifted off, a piece of insulating foam on its external fuel tank came off and was believed to have hit the left wing of the shuttle. Leroy Cain, the lead flight director in Mission Control, had assured reporters Friday that engineers had concluded any damage to the wing was considered minor and posed no safety hazard.

"As we look at that now in hindsight... we can't discount that there might be a connection," said Ron Dittemore, the Columbia program manager at Mission Control, hours after Columbia broke up. "But we have to caution you and ourselves that we can't rush to judgment on it because there are a lot of things in this business that look like the smoking gun but turn out not even to be close." (Click here for Haaretz in-depth coverage of Columbia.)

Dittemore added that the space agency picked up first indications of a problem less than a half hour before the shuttle was scheduled to land, with loss of key data transmissions from the left side of the orbiter. However, he said NASA experts had checked computer models showing a piece of debris hitting the wing and that all the staff members saw the statistics and agreed that there was no danger to the flight.

Even if possible damage to the Columbia's left wing did ultimately lead to Saturday's explosion over Texas, early recognition of such damage might not have been sufficient to stop the explosion from taking place.

That's because there is only one way to change the protective thermal tiles that may have been damaged by a flying piece of debris during liftoff: get out of the shuttle and walk on it. However, the astronauts aboard the Columbia - all seven of whom were killed in the shuttle explosion - were not trained to walk on the shuttle.

Dittemore said NASA had put a hold on shuttle flights until the cause was determined, and the schedule for any future missions was undetermined. "We cannot yet say what caused the loss of Columbia," Dittemore told reporters. "It will take us some time to work through."

Pieces of space craft, remains strewn across east Texas Pieces of the spacecraft were found in several east Texas counties and in Louisiana. An astronaut's charred patch and a flight helmet were among the items found. A piece of debris the size of a compact car fell into Toledo Bend Reservoir on the Texas-Louisiana line, said Sabine County Sheriff Tom Maddox.

In Hemphill, Texas, a hospital employee on his way to work along a rural road reported finding what appeared to be a charred torso, thigh bone and skull.

Nearby, also in Sabine County, two young boys found a charred human leg on their farm, The Dallas Morning News reported Sunday.

Columbia disintegrated at an altitude of 39 miles (63 kilometers) above Texas at around 1400 GMT, as it was reentering the atmoshpere, and just 16 minutes before its scheduled landing at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. A white streak flashed across the sky high over Texas as the shuttle appeared to break off into separate balls of light. (Click here to view the Columbia mission in pictures.)

The spacecraft had just re-entered the atmosphere and had reached the point at which it was subjected to the highest temperatures. It was almost exactly 17 years after the shuttle Challenger exploded.

"The Columbia is lost. There are no survivors," President George W. Bush told a press conference, five hours after contact was first lost with the shuttle as it flew over Texas.

"The loss of this valiant crew is something we will never be able to get over," NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe told a news briefing. "This is indeed a tragic day."

Authorities said there was no indication of terrorism; at 207,135 feet (62,140 meters), the shuttle was out of range of any surface-to-air missile, one senior government official said. Security was extraordinarily tight on this mission because of Ramon's presence on the flight.

Along with Ramon, the shuttle - which was on its 28th mission - carried commander Rick Husband, pilot Willie McCool, mission specialists Dave Brown, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla and payload commander Mike Anderson.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon expressed his condolences to Ramon's family, the U.S., and the families of the other crew members killed in the disaster. "Times such as these strengthen the bonds of our common fate, values and vision, all of which were realized in Colonel Ilan Ramon's journey into space," Sharon said.

Sharon said the deaths of the astronauts "were not in vain. Man's journey will continue. Cooperation between the United States and Israel in this field will continue."

"The day will come when we will launch more astronauts into space," he added. "I am sure that each and every one of them will carry in his heart the memory of Ilan Ramon, a pioneer in Israeli space travel."

Shortly after it was confirmed the shuttle had broken up, the American flag next to its countdown clock was lowered to half-mast.

Fifteen minutes after the expected landing time, and with no word from the shuttle, NASA announced that search and rescue teams were being mobilized in Dallas and Fort Worth areas in Texas.