The Crew of the Final Mission of the Space Shuttle Columbia Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Crew of the Final Mission of the Space Shuttle Columbia

4 Conversations

A silhouette of the shuttle against the American flag

On 1 February, 2003, the Space Shuttle  Columbia (STS-107) was lost on re-entry to Earth's atmosphere, killing all seven astronauts on board. Columbia had lifted off on its 28th mission on 16 January, beginning a 16-day science research mission that had been planned for more than two years.

Michael P Anderson - Payload Commander

One of only a few black astronauts, Michael, aged 43, was married with two daughters. His ambition was to travel to Mars. He had dreamed of being an astronaut since he was a child watching sci-fi like Star Trek and Lost in Space on television.

Anderson was an electronic communications expert who then trained to be a pilot. He applied to NASA in 1994 and was accepted into the astronaut training programme. His first journey into space was in 1998 on board the Endeavour. While on board the Mir space station he enjoyed playing with food at zero gravity.

On Columbia, he was in charge of scientific tasks.

I don't enjoy blasting off into space. There's always that unknown. But for me, it's the fact that what I'm doing can have great consequences and great benefits for everyone, for all mankind. I take the risk because I think what we're doing is really important. If you look at this research flight and if you really take an opportunity to look at each experiment - the potential yield that we have is really tremendous.

David Brown - Mission Specialist

Bachelor David, 46, always wanted to be an astronaut. He worked his way through college in a circus, performing as an acrobat, a stilt walker and a unicyclist. He received a Bachelor of Science degree in biology in 1978 and a Doctorate in Medicine from Eastern Virginia Medical School in 1982. He joined the Navy as a doctor and became one of the few surgeons to train as a pilot. He logged over 2700 flight hours before being accepted by NASA for astronaut training.

As a physician and as a pilot, I think it lets me be a pretty good translator having one foot in the medical world and one foot in the flying world. Sometimes when the medical guys come in and speak medical stuff to the pilots, the pilots really don't know what they're saying. And vice versa. And I think the biggest benefit of having done both is that I speak both languages. And sometimes the answers are not quite as complicated as we think if you understand both halves of the problem that you're working on.

As the shuttle crew prepared for re-entry, Captain Brown joked to mission control:

Do we really have to come back?

Kalpana Chawla - Mission Specialist

The youngest daughter of a wealthy factory owner, Kalpana withstood intense family pressure to achieve her dream. In Karnal, the small Indian town where she was born, approximately 60% of women are illiterate.

A model pupil, she gained a Bachelor of Science degree in aeronautical engineering in 1982; then emigrated to the USA, where she attained a Master of Science degree in aerospace engineering in 1984, and a Doctorate of Philosophy in aerospace engineering in 1988.

Lieutenant Colonel Chawla, the only Indian woman to travel into space, enjoyed flying, hiking, backpacking, and reading. She lived in Texas with her American husband (flight instructor Jean-Pierre Harrison). Since joining NASA in 1994, she clocked up 734 hours 54 minutes in space.

During an earlier space mission, Kalpana was blamed when a satellite tumbled out of control and drifted off into space. She had been controlling a robotic arm, but it malfunctioned and she closed the arm too quickly. Two astronauts had to go on an unscheduled spacewalk to retrieve the 3000lb science satellite.

At her old high school in Karnal, a shrine to 'The Global Indian1' was attended by mothers and daughters. Her old teacher said:

Look, there are options for you. There is marriage and children, but there are other choices.

Laurel Clark - Mission Specialist

Iowa-born Laurel received a Bachelor of Science degree in zoology in 1983 and a Doctorate in Medicine in 1987. Dr Laurel Blair Salton Clark (Commander) was married to Jonathan (a Navy captain) and they had a son, Ian, aged eight years. She enjoyed scuba diving, hiking, camping, biking, parachuting, flying, travelling and spending time with her family.

I can't think of anything specific growing up that pointed me toward NASA at all. I was interested in the Moon landings just about the same as everyone else of my generation. But, I never really thought about being an astronaut or working in space myself. I was very interested in environment and ecosystems and animals. And that eventually shone through in my interests in zoology as an undergraduate. And then [I] decided to pursue medicine. I joined the Navy and was exposed to a lot of different operational environments, working on submarines and working in tight quarters on ships, and learning about radiation medicine. And it was really just sort of a natural progression when I learned about NASA and what astronauts do, and the type of things that they are expected to do, that I thought about the things I had done so far and became more interested in that as a career.

Laurel had been overjoyed to receive the call-up for her first mission into space.

I'm just thrilled. It's a most wonderful experience and it's been a little bit of a whirlwind.

Her last words to her family were from space. Describing sunsets, she said:

There's a flash and the whole payload bay turns rosy pink. It's extremely beautiful.

Laurel was the niece of Doug and Betty Hailand, who had lost their son in the 11 September hijackings.

Rick Husband - Mission Commander

Since he was a boy aged four years, Colonel Husband was besotted with space rockets and dreamed of becoming an astronaut himself. He earned a Master's degree in mechanical engineering, but had to apply to NASA four times before they finally accepted him into astronaut training in 1994. In 1992, Rick was an exchange test pilot with the RAF.

Being given command of the Columbia mission, despite it only being his second time in space, was a testament to his expertise. He had previously been co-pilot on a flight to the International Space Station in 1999.

He served as a safety officer and aided the developments of a space station lifeboat. He also contributed to studies of future human missions to the moon and Mars.

A devout Christian, the 45-year-old father-of-two sang in his local church choir. He also enjoyed water-skiing, snow-skiing and cycling.

From the time I was about four years old, I wanted to be an astronaut. And, it was about that time when the Mercury programme started up. And so, I saw those things on the TV, and it just really excited me. It really grabbed my interest. And, seeing those rockets and learning about the astronauts, and seeing what they were doing, and then the models that came out in the stores and you could build the plastic models, and I remember building a Gemini model that I put together. And just, I thought everything about that was so fascinating. And in following that all the way through, from Mercury to Gemini to Apollo, watching the Moon landings and everything, it was just so incredibly adventurous and exciting to me that I just thought, 'There is no doubt in my mind that that's what I want to do when I grow up.'

William McCool - Pilot

Although born in San Diego, 'Cool Willy' was raised in Lubbock, Texas. The son of a Vietnam veteran, William liked to build model airplanes and his dream was to fly. William received a Bachelor of Science degree in applied science from the US Naval Academy in 1983, a Master's degree in computer science in 1985 and a Master's degree in aeronautical engineering in 1992. Becoming a Commander in the Navy, he had over 2800 hours of flying before his launch into orbit on 16 January.

The worst part of the [astronaut] training was learning to take blood.

One of his tasks in space was to take samples from the crew for analysis.

For hobbies, William liked to play chess and he also enjoyed backpacking, running and swimming. He even entertained his family by playing the guitar. He was 41 and married with three sons.

Willie never looked down on anyone - even though he was smarter than 95% of anyone he ever met. He got to the top because he deserved it. He was elite, but he was not aloof.

Ilan Ramon - Payload Commander

A married father of four, 48-year-old Ilan was the first Israeli astronaut. His mother and grandmother survived the Auschwitz atrocities. He felt he represented all Jews and all Israelis. From the mission, he had a conversation via a satellite link-up with Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister. He described how he had seen his beloved homeland from space and how peaceful it looked. He hoped that one day his country would know this peace.

Born in Tel Aviv, Ilan was awarded a Bachelor of Science degree in electronics and computer engineering in 1987. Colonel Ramon had accumulated over 3,000 flight hours on the A-4, Mirage III-C, and F-4, and over 1,000 flight hours on the F-16. Ilan fought in two wars during his career with the Israeli air force, helping bomb an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981. Selected as Israel's first astronaut in 1997, he was due for his first space flight in 1999 but 18 technical problems delayed the mission.

A deeply religious man, he repeatedly stated that he was not nervous or afraid about his safety aboard the space shuttle. He had taken some precious mementoes with him on his fateful journey:

  • A letter from a Holocaust survivor
  • A pencil drawing titled 'Moon Landscape' by 14-year-old Peter Ginz, who was killed at Auschwitz
  • Letters from his brother and his son
  • Poems from his wife
Well, when I was a kid, and not only a kid growing up, nobody in Israel ever dreamed, well, I wouldn't say nobody. But, most of the people wouldn't dream of being an astronaut because it wasn't on the agenda. So I never thought I would've been an astronaut. I'm a pilot, a fighter pilot, in my background. And I love to fly! Flying aircrafts, fighter aircraft, is great. And I was very happy. I've never dreamed to be an astronaut. When I was selected, I really jumped almost to space. I was very excited. And again, I didn't do anything to be an astronaut. When I was selected, there were actually two requirements to be selected or to be in the group that might have been selected. One of them was to be educated in a technology or science. A degree. And the other was to be involved within the Air Force in experiments. And I was involved, deeply, in experiments in the Air Force. So, I answered the two requirements. And out of several people, they selected me. So personally, I didn't do anything to get here. I just, I think I was in the right place in the right time. That's all.

David Brown, Laurel Clark, William McCool and Ilan Ramon were all on their first-ever space flight.

1As she was described on the cover of India Today, India's largest-selling news magazine, February, 2003.

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