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Hard Work, High Spirits

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Guy Gugliotta and Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, February 3, 2003

The spacecraft was full of life: seven people, many spiders, a nest of carpenter bees, a baker's dozen rodents. Here was moss, yeast, strains of bacteria, cells growing in tissue cultures. In orbit, a silk moth emerged from its cocoon. A fish hatched. Miniature roses and rice flowers bloomed.

The final flight of Columbia was something of an anomaly: a pure science mission. No one asked this crew of astronauts to ferry hardware to the International Space Station. No one asked them to take a wrench to the Hubble Space Telescope. They were expected -- even the fighter jocks among them -- to perform science, in teams, 24 hours a day.

They carried with them a laboratory called Spacehab, crammed with instruments, cameras, computers, test tubes. The astronauts themselves were guinea pigs, swallowing calcium tracers to study the effects of weightlessness.

Columbia had a cargo of human ingenuity, with 80 experiments designed in 16 countries, from Japan to Liechtenstein.

At one point, astronauts used a contraption the size of a trash basket to create tiny, fragile "flame balls" of burning hydrogen and methane. Some winked out quickly, but one lasted 25 minutes and another a heroic 81. Mission specialist Dave Brown decided each had a personality.

"I see one flame ball," he told Mission Control, "and its name is Howard."

As experts try to figure out what went wrong on Columbia, the people who worked with the astronauts talk of much that went right, of hard work and excellent science, and high spirits all the way into space and almost all the way home.

The astronauts were on their backs, helmeted, in orange pressure suits, aimed toward space.

It was Jan. 16, and they were on Launch Pad 39-A, out toward the beach on Cape Canaveral. "The Lord has blessed us with a beautiful day here," Commander Rick Husband said.

At the Cape, and in Mission Control in Houston, NASA officials entertained the public with countdown pronouncements and informative chitchat, but inside Columbia the crew heard nothing. The launch required absolute silence. If something went wrong, the Florida launch team needed to communicate instantly with the crew.

Three of the astronauts had been to space before, but four hadn't. Security had been unusually tight before the launch because of the presence of an Israeli, Ilan Ramon, a military pilot who had brought with him a drawing by a boy killed at Auschwitz.

At 10:38 a.m., with the countdown nearing one minute, the astronauts closed and locked their visors. Six seconds before liftoff, the main engines ignited. The shuttle rocked back and forth a couple of feet, an unnerving feeling for those inside, as if the spacecraft were about to fall over. But there wasn't enough time. The solid fuel booster rockets ignited, and Columbia left the planet.

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