National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) suspected that al-Qaeda might try to attack space shuttle Columbia on its launch pad in Florida's Cape Canaveral because one of its crew members was the first Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, according to a book published by former CIA operations officer Richard Irwin.
Columbia exploded on February 1, 2003, on its way back from its 28th mission in space. All seven astronauts on board were killed.
In an extensive report published five years after the accident, NASA determined that the explosion occurred because of a hole in the left wing that caused the space shuttle to disintegrate during its return to the atmosphere.
Along with the report, NASA also published a short video that documents the last seconds in the cockpit.
In his book titled KH601, Irwin claims that many feared Ramon's involvement might turn Columbia into a target. "Many space agency officials feared his presence might make the shuttle more of a terrorist target. Because they were concerned, we became concerned as well."
The book, named after Irwin's CIA badge number, is a memoir of his 28 years of service in the agency, from his days as a security guard and his eventual advancement into the position of director of incident management in the Bush White House.
No concrete evidenceIn a conversation with Washington Post's Jeff Stein, Irwin said the space agency did not have "concrete evidence" of an intention to attack the shuttle, "But information derived from a 'threat matrix' analysis by US security agencies indicated that the first Israeli on board the shuttle could be a good target for al-Qaeda.
“Nine months earlier …NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe had asked Governor (Tom) Ridge and the new (White House) Office of Homeland Security for assistance in securing the Columbia launch….” Irwin writes in his book.
Irwin recounts the memory of Ramon's son bidding farewell to his father moments before the launching.
“Goose bumps went up the back of my neck as I overheard the youngest son of Ilan Ramon … say, ‘Farewell, my father. I doubt that I will ever see you again,’ just when there was nine seconds left to lift off,” he writes.
Most of the book focuses on his memoirs of the agency's missions in the 1980s in Central America, as well as its activity in Afghanistan in the first decade of the 21st century, when he headed a CIA team that took part in the battle against al-Qaeda.