I was at the runway at the Kennedy Space Center early on the clear, cold morning exactly 10 years ago when Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated on its return trip to earth.

As a reporter working on the Space Coast -- my hometown -- shuttle landings were my responsibility.

We all thought this would go just like the other landings I'd covered before.

But as the clock ticked toward down touchdown, suddenly the mood and tone coming from Mission Control all changed.

Normally, it's like an easy checklist everyone's following. Instead, there were questions, and chatter. Tracking lost -- temperature sensors -- unusual things.

About five minutes before landing is when we always here that double sonic boom -- boom! boom! -- as the shuttle flies overhead at the runway.

This time: silence.

Then in my ear, I hear the voice of mission control saying, "This is Mission Control, Houston. A space shuttle contingency has been declared in Mission Control as a result of communication with Space Shuttle Columbia."

I'm live on TV. My anchor asks me in my ear -- contingency -- what does that mean? And I have to explain it's engineering talk for a disaster.

The shuttle is lost.

Unless there's a true miracle, the astronauts on board have just been killed.

The astronauts' family and friends were also at the runway, just a few hundred feet down from us. They were hustled into NASA buses and rushed away.

Then we were told to pack up our equipment fast and drive back to the main press area, in the middle of the space center.

I was in the car, on the phone with my producer. She was standing in a room back at the TV station in Orlando, watching monitors with video coming in from all over the country.

I'll never forget... she mumbled something about video coming in from Dallas. Then she gasped and almost dropped the phone.

She saw the video for the first time of Columbia breaking up over Texas, crumbling into glowing chunks at the ends of long white streaks across the sky.

Minutes later, I was live on CNN talking about how this could have happened.

"I look at the other reporters I work with every day and we don't know what to say to each other. It's a very bizarre feeling," I said.

"There's been talk about what caused this failure, and the latest we've gotten is... something about losing a piece of insulation off of the External Tank, into the heat shield."

"The heat shield is a very unpredictable part of the shuttle."

NASA testing later showed that was the right analysis. A piece of foam came off the orange External Fuel Tank and blasted a hole the size of a suitcase into Columbia's left wing.

Superhot gases got into the the shuttle through that hole as it reentered the atmosphere and broke Columbia up from the inside out.

Seven astronauts lost their lives, and that chill I still feel when I think about that day reminds me how dangerous it can be to push the limits in the name of exploration.

Follow 10 News Reporter Grayson Kamm on twitter @graysonkamm

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