A highly successful mission, until the last minutes

Tragic losses overshadow otherwise `amazing' flight

The loss of Columbia

February 02, 2003|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

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.

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