As short as it was, the second flight of the space shuttle last month produced enough of the first radar "photographs" of Earth's surface to cover 10 million square kilometers, a region the size of the United States.
The abbreviated three-day flight of astronauts Joe Henry Engle and Richard Truly also generated infrared images of 80,000 kilometers of Earth's surface across four continents, discerning different types of soil and rocks for geologists.
It produced spectacular photographs of the tops of thunderclouds around the world, took the first measurements from space of fish schools in the Yellow Sea, the South China Sea and the Mediterranean, and was the first attempt from space to measure carbon monoxide pollution in the northern and southern hemispheres.
"We had planned to do these experiments over five days and we only got three," the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Dr. Jim Taranik told a news conference yesterday. "In spite of that, we think this entire mission was nothing short of an outstanding success."
While it will be months before the results are known from the six experiments carried in the shuttle's cargo bay, the scientists who designed the experiments were delighted with the way they worked.
The only experiment that did not work was an attempt to see how fast sunflower seeds grew in weightlessness.
"And the only reason it didn't work was that the mission was too short," Dr. Allan Brown of the University of Pennsylvania said. "We really needed two more days to prove the results of our experiment."
The most successful experiment carried by the shuttle was clearly the shuttle imaging radar, whose six-foot-wide antenna was able to penetrate storms, the dark of night and even the cover of vegetation to return radar "photographs" of 10 million square kilometers of the United States, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Mexico.
So sharp were the radar photos that the shallow slopes of the cliffs bordering the Corinthian Canal in Greece could be discerned from space. So sensitive was the radar that images it made of the Mediterranean Sea just off Sardinia showed patterns on the sea surface made by the winds.
"This was the longest radar strip of the Earth ever taken," said Dr. Charles Elachi of California's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where the radar was developed for the Pentagon to map rough terrain. "This is going to be a very useful tool for geologists in the future."