Before its heartbreaking re-entry, the shuttle Columbia's two weeks and two days in orbit around Earth were as ordinary as space travel ever is, marked by a nearly seamless launch, few mechanical troubles and quiet moments of history and everyday life in space.
Columbia's crew attracted attention for including the first Israeli astronaut and marking the 17-year anniversary of the Challenger disaster.
The seven crew members also left their legacy in science, completing about 80 experiments as part of a rare pure-research mission.
The crew missed watching the Super Bowl live but a day later caught a highlight tape of Tampa Bay's 48-21 win over Oakland. They gave samples of their own blood, urine and saliva for medical studies and jammed along to the Talking Heads' song, "Burning Down the House," as they conducted a fire experiment that could one day lead to more efficient car engines.
"It's kind of with mixed emotions that we get ready to come home," payload commander Michael Anderson told Mission Control late Friday afternoon. "But we have enough fond memories to last us for a lifetime."
The mission's ordinariness made its deadly ending all the sadder for NASA officials who woke yesterday to clear, sunny skies at Cape Canaveral, Fla., and expectations of a smooth return for Columbia.
"It was an amazing mission," said Ron Dittemore, NASA's shuttle program manager. "We were ecstatic over the results and looking forward to talking to the crew and telling them what a great job they had done."
Mission STS-107, which marked Columbia's 28th flight, began under a clear Florida sky after nearly two years of delays and shifting plans. NASA officials at one point considered staffing the mission with an all-female crew, an idea later abandoned. It was also considered as a carrier for GoreSat, the Earth-observing spacecraft proposed by former Vice President Al Gore.
Launch date delayed
As a science mission, Columbia had been scheduled for launch last July but was grounded after workers discovered fuel-line cracks. Two other space station delivery trips - considered a higher priority - were moved ahead of Columbia's mission.
When its launch came, at 10:39 a.m. Jan. 16, Columbia rocketed into the skies with no delays or false starts. Its launch was most notable for the heightened security surrounding Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, a colonel in his country's air force, who was sent into space amid the cheering of about 300 of his countrymen.
"This is such an exciting time for us ... he makes us so proud," said Israel's ambassador to the United States, Danny Ayalon, who offered this message to the crew: "God bless you, and may you go in peace. Shalom."
Shortly after liftoff, a piece of insulating foam on Columbia's external fuel tank came off and was thought to have struck the shuttle's left wing. That damage received new attention yesterday, but on the day after liftoff, NASA officials in Houston said that any damage to the wing was considered minor and posed no danger.
In space, the crew quickly settled into a round-the-clock research schedule, sleeping in shifts as they used the 16 days of orbit to provide weightlessness for a range of experiments.
The research included testing a new fire-fighting system that puts out blazes with a fine mist, photographing desert storms for atmospheric studies by the Israel Space Agency and less weighty studies. Along for the ride in Columbia's mini-greenhouse were American hybrid miniature roses as part of a perfume-industry experiment to better understand how light, water, nutrients and a lack of gravity determine a flower's fragrance.
Rats from Hopkins
Columbia was also equipped with a small chamber for igniting fires, an ozone monitor and lots of animal cages: Ants, fish embryos, carpenter bees, mealworms and rats were aboard, all in the name of science.
The only mechanical trouble while the shuttle was in orbit - a malfunctioning of the cooling and dehumidifying systems during the mission's first week - pushed temperatures to nearly 80 degrees, 10 degrees higher than normal. To cool the rats, which were part of a cardiovascular study at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University, the astronauts removed sound-reducing covers from the cages.
Throughout the journey, though, the astronauts' reports to Mission Control in Houston were uniformly upbeat. "We're having a great time and starting to get things squared away where we can move around and really get settled in," commander Rick Husband said on the flight's first day.
"We're just all thrilled that everything is going as well as it is," astronaut Laurel Clark told Mission Control last Sunday.
Many of the experiments on board were school projects, and classrooms around the world - from Australia to China to Liechtenstein - were closely tracking Columbia's mission.
In Syracuse, N.Y., students at Fowler High School were already analyzing data collected from an ant colony experiment on board the shuttle. The data, received by NASA, was forwarded to the students over a Web site, even as the shuttle was in space.
As she struggled with yesterday's news, science teacher Charlotte Archabald, who headed Fowler High's experiment to study microgravity's impact on the tunneling of harvester ants, said the experimental data would be part of the astronauts' legacy.
Along with all the scientific equipment, the Columbia crew also carried with it items deeply personal. Pilot William McCool, a Navy commander who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, brought for his former cross-country and track coach a small pennant embroidered with 38 stars - signifying the number of times Navy beat Army during his years as head coach. "Everybody you like should have a Willie McCool in their life," the coach, Al Cantello, said last night.
Ramon carried with him a tiny Torah scroll, received by Holocaust survivor Joachim Joseph while he was imprisoned with a rabbi at a Nazi concentration camp in Germany in 1944. Ramon, who met Joseph two years ago, displayed the scroll during a televised news conference Jan. 21, the sixth day of the Columbia mission.
"This represents more than anything the ability of the Jewish people to survive despite everything from horrible periods, black days, to reach periods of hope and belief in the future," Ramon told Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and other Israeli officials watching in Jerusalem.
A week later, the Columbia crew paused on Jan. 28 for another solemn moment - to mark the 17th anniversary of the Challenger disaster that killed seven astronauts and the Jan. 27, 1967, launch-pad fire in the Apollo spacecraft that killed three astronauts.
"It is today that we remember and honor the crews of Apollo 1 and Challenger. They made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives and service to their country and for all mankind," Husband radioed before the airwaves went momentarily silent.
"Their dedication and devotion to the exploration of space was an inspiration to each of us and still motivates people around the world to achieve great things and service to others," he added.
In the three days that followed, the Columbia crew finished its work and prepared for the return to Earth.
"Do we really have to come back?" astronaut David Brown jokingly asked Mission Control late Friday.
"This was a fantastic mission," Milt Heflin, NASA's chief flight director, said. "And it just seemed to be coming to the right conclusion."
Early yesterday, as the sun burned away the morning's fog over Cape Canaveral, Mission Control gave the Columbia crew the go-ahead to touch down on schedule at 9:16 a.m.
But in the mission's final minutes, something went terribly wrong. NASA officials said that Mission Control noticed a loss of data from temperature sensors on the left wing, followed by a loss of data from tire-pressure indicators on the left main landing gear. The final radio transmissions, however, give little indication of trouble.
"Columbia, Houston, we see your tire pressure messages, and we did not copy your last."
Columbia's commander, Husband, calmly responded: "Roger, uh ... "
The transmission went silent, then turned to static.
Sun staff writers Athima Chansanchai, Kimball Payne, Lynn Anderson, Rona Kobell, Julie Bykowicz, Alec MacGillis and Andy Green and the Associated Press, contributed to this report.