Columbia's last mission — 16 days in orbit — was a round-the-clock operation devoted to 80 scientific experiments. There were a few minor technical glitches before the space shuttle disintegrated 39 miles over Texas. Following are some of the highlights of the mission, as provided by NASA.
Thursday, Jan. 16, 2003
10:39 a.m. ET — Columbia lifts off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., with seven crew members aboard, including the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon. Security was at an all-time high for the launch, which had been years in planning.
During liftoff, a piece of insulating foam from the external fuel tank breaks off and is believed to have hit the left wing of the shuttle. (Investigators do not yet know if this incident has any relevance to Columbia's tragic end.)
10:49 a.m. ET — The shuttle is safely in orbit and the crew begins to unpack gear.
12:30 p.m. ET — The crew opens Columbia's payload doors and exposes Spacehab, a pressurized laboratory module that contains 59 of the 80 scientific experiments to be conducted during the mission. Also on board: a special pallet of cryogenic fuel tanks to provide Columbia and its experiments sufficient electrical power for the duration of the flight.
The seven astronauts were divided into two teams — Red and Blue — so experiments could be run around the clock during the entire 16-day mission in space.
Friday, Jan. 17
5:39 a.m. ET — The Red Team, consisting of mission commander Rick Husband, mission specialists Kalpana Chawla and Laurel Clark and payload specialist Ramon, are woken by Mission Control.
Atmosphere experiments measuring the sun's energy, the Earth's ozone layer and dust in the Mediterranean Sea begin.
7:39 p.m. ET — The Blue Team, consisting of shuttle pilot Willie McCool, mission specialist Dave Brown and payload commander Mike Anderson, are awakened and take over for the Red Team.
Saturday, Jan. 18
5:39 a.m. ET — The Red Team wakes up and starts on the day's work. In addition to atmosphere research, the crew begins life science studies, including one studying calcium loss in bones during space flight.
3 p.m. ET — Red Team members take a break and conduct interviews with Earth-based news reporters. Israeli astronaut Ramon says he views the mission as an "opening for great science for our nation."
6:39 p.m. ET — Blue Team members are roused from their sleep to take over the second shift. In addition to continuing Red Team's work, members will begin experiments examining soot formation, lean combustion and fire suppression in the Combustion Module, or chamber.
Sunday, Jan. 19
Both Red and Blue teams continue their research, mainly related to material science.
TV cameras capture Ramon working in the shuttle's Combustion Module. He reports that the experiment facilities aboard Columbia were operating perfectly.
During the evening shift, one of two systems designed to collect and distribute water produced from condensation buildup caused by the operation of the cooling system in the Spacehab Research Module springs a leak and is shut down. The secondary unit takes over and operates normally.
Monday, Jan. 20
2:15 p.m. ET — Flight controllers on the ground notice a minor electrical spike in the second unit that took over cooling duties in the Spacehab module. Engineers work a plan out with the crew to reconfigure a valve to flow cool air from the shuttle to maintain the lab's temperature.