• Compiled from wire services

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA declared an emergency and feared the worst after losing communication with space shuttle Columbia as the ship and its seven astronauts soared over Texas several minutes before its expected landing Saturday.

As the minutes wore on, there appeared to be no hope for their survival. Among those on board was Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut.

Television stations showed what appeared to be debris falling, and NASA warned Texas residents to beware of any falling objects. NASA also announced that search and rescue teams were being mobilized in the Dallas and Fort Worth areas.

There is no possibility that the space shuttle Columbia could have made a successful emergency landing from the high altitude at which it was traveling when it lost contact with NASA, the agency said Saturday.

“I’m afraid that is not really an option at this altitude,” NASA spokesman Kyle Herring told CNN.

The shuttle was flying at 200,000 feet at the time, moving at 20,000 kph.

Residents of north Texas heard “a big bang” Saturday about the time the shuttle disappeared on its way to a landing at Cape Canaveral.

“It was like a car hitting the house or an explosion. It shook that much,” said John Ferolito, 60, of Carrolton, north of Dallas.

Gary Hunziker in Plano said he saw the shuttle flying overhead. “I could see two bright objects flying off each side of it.”

Inside Mission Control, flight controllers hovered in front of their computers, staring at the screens. The wives, husbands and children of the astronauts who had been waiting at the landing strip were gathered together by NASA and taken to secluded place.

“A contingency for the space shuttle has been declared,” Mission Control repeated over and over as no word or any data came from Columbia.

In 42 years of U.S. human space flight, there had never been an accident during the descent to Earth or landing. On Jan. 28, 1986, space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff.

On Jan. 16, shortly after Columbia lifted off, a piece of insulating foam on its external fuel tank came off and was believed to have struck the left wing of the shuttle. Leroy Cain, the lead flight director in Mission Control, assured reporters Friday that engineers had concluded that any damage to the wing was considered minor and posed no safety hazard.

Columbia had been aiming for a landing at 9:16 Saturday morning.

It was at an altitude of 207,000 feet over north-central Texas at 9 a.m., traveling at 20,112 kph when Mission Control lost contact and tracking data.

Security had been tight for the 16-day scientific research mission because of the presence of Ramon, a colonel in the Israeli Air Force and former fighter pilot.

Ramon became the first man from his country to fly in space, and his presence resulted in an increase in security, not only for Columbia’s launch, but also for its planned landing. Space agency officials feared his presence might make the shuttle more of a terrorist target.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s office said it had no immediate comment.

Columbia’s crew had completed 80-plus scientific research experiments during their time in orbit.

Meanwhile, Indian space scientists Saturday expressed shock as NASA said it had lost communication with Columbia that was also carrying Indian-born astronaut Kalpana Chawla.

“I am shocked. At this moment am at a loss for words. I hope everything is OK. Even at this moment I am hoping,” said K. Kasturiranagan, chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization.

“It is a terrible incident,” said R. Narasimha, a member of India’s Space Commission.

“Kalpana Chawla is the first Indian to be involved in such a tragedy. It is very sad. Looking at the pictures I think there is not much hope left. The shuttle has broken up into many parts and one can see multiple traces. One can see balls of fire and smoke as it moved down. There is no hope.”

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