More than any other NASA space mission, the crew of the Columbia represented the planet it soared above. The seven astronauts who perished yesterday came from America, India and Israel.
During the 16-day mission, each nation had cheered on its homegrown heroes. In India, well-wishers calculated when the Columbia would pass over the country so that they could wave to Kalpana Chawla, the 41-year-old astronaut on board.
In Israel, schoolchildren papered their bulletin boards with the face of Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli to launch into space.
And at a church in Amarillo, Tex., Sunday school students drew spaceships with prayers underneath for native son Rick D. Husband, the 45-year-old commander of the Columbia.
The diversity of the crew -- three white American men, a white American woman, a black American man, an Israeli national and an Indian immigrant -- was what stuck many Americans about yesterday's tragedy.
The astronauts were a combination of steely test pilots and modern-day engineering phenoms. Ramon was a bona fide combat hero, flying missions in the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and the Lebanon war in 1982. He reportedly took part in Israel's bombing of Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981, setting back Baghdad's quest for nuclear weapons by years.
Last week, Israelis seemed to care more about Ramon's mission than they did about the national elections. The 48-year-old air force colonel and father of four was pure poetry when he described his wonderment at the galaxies. By going up in space, the pilot knew he was leaving the dangerous and bloody ground of Israel down below.
"From space, Israel looks like it does on a map; small but charming," Ramon told Prime Minister Ariel Sharon last week, by video hookup.
Ramon was chosen as Israel's first astronaut in 1997 and moved to Houston the next year to train for his shuttle flight. When he went up in space, he carried his country with him. His mother and grandmother had survived the Auschwitz death camp, and Ramon tucked in his space bag a picture that a Jewish boy had drawn before he died in the Holocaust: It was what Earth must have looked like from the moon.
Cmdr. Rick Husband was all astronaut. The 45-year-old Air Force colonel often said he could remember watching his first launch as a 4-year-old boy in Texas when the Mercury space program was underway. From then on, Husband honed his destiny.
The former test pilot graduated from high school in Amarillo. After graduating from Texas Tech University in 1980, he received his pilot training at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma.
Husband was accepted into NASA's astronaut program in 1994 and took his first space voyage in 1999, serving as the Discovery's co-pilot. More than a thousand of his friends and neighbors from Amarillo traveled to the Kennedy Space Center to wave goodbye to him.
Faith was important to Husband, who sang in his choir at Grace Community Church in a Houston suburb not far from Johnson Space Center. Husband belonged to a weekly prayer groups for fathers. During space flights, he would look out his window and think to himself, "God created all this."
Most astronauts are an elite class of pilots selected from Navy or Air Force flight training schools. The image burnished in Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff" of the swaggering cowboy in the sky has been replaced in modern times by a highly disciplined pilot who often has a master's degree in engineering or aeronautics.
"The hotshots flunk out in 10 minutes," said George C. Wilson, whose book "Flying the Edge" described the making of a Navy test pilot. "You don't fly under bridges or flat-hat anymore. It's now very scientific, very computerized, with a heavy emphasis on analysis."
A Navy test pilot might take up a V-22 Marine Osprey and fly a variety of maneuvers, for weeks or months, each time returning to the ground to write graph-filled reports.
"Because you have so much technical training, you make a dandy astronaut," Wilson said.
Having a name such as Willie McCool didn't hurt. The Navy commander from Lubbock, Tex., graduated second in his class at the U.S. Naval Academy but his name suggested a test pilot from the stick-and-throttle era. "He was extremely likable and intelligent," says former Capt. Rosemary Mariner, one of McCool's instructors at a naval jet training base in Kingsville, Tex., in the mid-1980s.
McCool was in training when the Challenger exploded. But even at an early age, he was gluing together model airplanes and wanted to follow in his dad's footsteps flying for the Navy. His Columbia sojourn was his first into space. As the pilot, he was responsible for maneuvering the shuttle.
Payload commander Michael P. Anderson, 43, was one of seven African American astronauts in the space program. From the time he was a boy watching "Star Trek" in Spokane, Wash., Anderson meticulously plotted his career, figuring which planes he would need to fly to improve his chances for astronaut selection. He was flying for the Air Force in 1994 when he received the call from NASA.
A Christian with two daughters, the lieutenant colonel was in charge of Columbia's dozens of science experiments.
Mission specialist Laurel Blair Salton Clark, 41, a Navy flight surgeon on her first flight into space, was carrying a sheet of paper bearing the photographs and fingerprints of every member of her son's Houston elementary school class. Her 8-year-old son, Ian, hadn't wanted his mother to go away for two weeks. He even asked his grandmother and his aunt to take her place on the shuttle.
Clark tried explaining to her son. "Would you give up something that you love to do?" she asked, according to Clark's brother, Daniel Salton of Milwaukee.
Clark was the niece of Doug and Betty Haviland of Ames, Iowa, who lost their 41-year-old son in the World Trade Center attack. "It was a very deja vu sort of thing, you know; we watched those towers smoking and eventually collapsing, and then you see this space shuttle breaking apart," said Doug Haviland, a 76-year-old retired Episcopal minister.
Mission Specialist David M. Brown was born in Washington, Va. He took a summer off from his studies at William and Mary College to work at Busch Gardens amusement park in Florida, where he rode a unicycle and balanced on seven-foot stilts. Brown planned on being a regular doctor until he saw a pamphlet one day that showed a Navy physician standing on the flight deck next to an F-4 Phantom. After his medical internship, he went on to fly the A-6E Intruder.
The Columbia mission was Brown's first spaceflight, and it left him in awe of the sea of darkness that the shuttle traversed. Yet his journey also reminded him of Earth in new ways, according to an e-mail he sent last week from the shuttle.
"The views of earth are really beautiful," Brown wrote his mother, who lives in Washington, Va. "If I had been born in space, I would desire to visit the beautiful earth more than I ever yearned to visit space."
When she was a little girl in Karnal, India, Kalpana Chawla told her father she wanted to study aerospace. Be a doctor or a teacher, her father said. He wouldn't even accompany his daughter when she went to interview at an Indian engineering school. Instead, her mother went. An instructor told Chawla that engineering wasn't "ladylike."
Chawla earned an aeronautical degree from the Punjab Engineering College. She knew she had to get to the United States if she were to ever see space. After receiving her master's degree from the University of Texas in 1984, she went to the University of Colorado for her doctorate. There, she began working for a professor who was doing NASA research in complex fluid dynamics. She became an American citizen in 1990 and an astronaut in 1994.
Known as "CK," she made her first space flight in 1997 on a mission that included research on the effects of weightlessness and studied the sun's outer atmosphere.
The astronauts shared their trinkets from home. Brown told his mother he was most moved by reading a letter that Ramon had brought from a Holocaust survivor.
The crew members came from different cultures and countries, but the duties of the shuttle blurred any differences. One afternoon, some of the astronauts woke the others with "The Wedding Song" by Peter Paul and Mary, uplinked from Mission Control especially for McCool. On another afternoon -- the crew slept at odd hours -- the astronauts awoke to the song "Hakuna Matata" from "The Lion King," sent for payload commander Anderson by his two children.