Timeline of Shuttle's Last Mission

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.

Flight engineers continue to monitor the development and don't expect the glitch to affect the science experiments. All other systems are reportedly operating normally.

Tuesday, Jan. 21

Ramon speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and other dignitaries in Jerusalem. He captures never-before-photographed lightning phenomena, known as "sprites" and "elves," in the extreme upper atmosphere.

For other experiments, commander Husband steers Columbia with its on-board rockets to aim payload bay-mounted instruments to study ozone in the upper atmosphere and another experiment that studies the solar constant.

4:39 p.m. ET — The Blue Team awakes to "The Wedding Song" by Paul Stookey, uplinked from Mission Control especially for shuttle pilot McCool.

The Spacehab's dehumidifiers remain off due to problems and flight engineers continue to seek other cooling options.

Wednesday, Jan. 22

The Columbia crew members beam down video views of the insects, spiders, fish, bees and silkworms that are part of the biology experiments designed by students in six countries.

4:09 p.m. ET — At the request of astronaut Anderson's children, Mission Control wakes the Blue Team by playing "Kahuna Matata" by the musical group Baja Men.

Mission Control reports cooling and humidity control of the Spacehab module is being effectively managed through minor adjustments.

Thursday, Jan. 23

Both teams continue their research work, including further experiments on the nature of fire in space.

Commander Husband, leader of the Red Team, and pilot McCool, leader of the Blue Team, adjust Columbia's attitude relative to the Earth to support the different requirements of experiments.

In the afternoon, Blue Team's wake-up call is "Burning Down the House" by the Talking Heads.

Friday, Jan. 24

6 a.m. ET — The Red Team conducts experiments involving flame balls as well as human physiology experiments.

In an astro-culture experiment, the last of six samples of essential oils from rose and rice flowers are harvested. Eventually, results from the experiment could lead to in new perfume fragrances.

3:30 p.m. ET — The Blue Team wakes to "Hotel California," performed by members of McCool's family. They conduct experiments to study how sandy soil full of water behaves under pressure.

Saturday, Jan. 25

2 a.m. ET — After their shift ends, Blue Team crew members conduct interviews with reporters from BET, WTKR-TV in Norfolk, Va., and KNSD-TV in San Diego, Calif.

12:30 p.m. ET — Video, narrated by Ramon, is sent to Mission Control showing various experiment operations conducted by both Red and Blue teams. Commander Husband maneuvers Columbia as required for any scientific activities.

Mission specialist Clark completes experiments dealing with bone cells in microgravity and also continues work on the Bioreactor Demonstration System, which is growing prostate cancer tissues to learn how the cancer spreads into bones and aid in the development of future treatment methods.

3:39 p.m. ET — Blue Team is awakened to the sounds of "I Say a Little Prayer for You" sung by Dionne Warwick. The song was played for Anderson at his wife's request.

Sunday, Jan. 26

The crew sends digital video of the Middle East with breathtaking views of Israel, the Red Sea and the Sinai Peninsula. The video also contained scenes of life and work on orbit involving the seven astronauts. Columbia's systems continue to function perfectly as the shuttle orbits at an altitude of about 180 statute miles.

The Red Team conducts more experiments involving the study of flames in space in a the Combustion Module in the Spacehab.

The crew monitors a lab module containing a half-dozen student-developed experiments ranging from the study of Australian spiders to the analysis of space flight's effects on carpenter bees from Liechtenstein. In the module, fish hatch in an aquatic facility and a silk moth emerges from its cocoon.

More investigations are conducted into the effect of dust storms on the atmosphere with multispectral cameras in Columbia's cargo bay.

Monday, Jan. 27

12:30 p.m. ET — The Red Team — Husband, Chawla, Clark and Ramon — take time out from microgravity experimentation to chat with the three astronauts aboard the International Space Station. The space station was some 240 miles above southern Russia while the shuttle was over northern Brazil.

3:39 p.m. ET — The Blue Team wakes up to the sounds of "Slow Boat to Rio" by Earl Klugh. After a half a day of rest, they resume research activities concentrating on the Mediterranean Israeli Dust Experiment, which the day before captured its first observations of dust over the Atlantic.

Astronauts complete the Structures of Flame Balls experiment, which looked at ways of improving engine combustion efficiency. A total of 55 flame balls are ignited, including the weakest and leanest flames ever burned. The longest-lived flame burn in space for 81 minutes, part of a total burn time for all flames of 6 ¼ hours.

Tuesday, Jan. 28

The Red Team enjoys some time off from experiments in the morning. Clark retrieves samples associated with the Bioreactor Demonstration System, which has grown a bone and prostate cancer tumor tissue sample as large as a golf ball — the largest grown in space to date.

3 p.m. ET — Chawla and Husband send video of the MIST experiment equipment and a leaky combustion chamber to engineers at Mission Control. The chamber provides control, containment, diagnostics and communications for fire-related experiments and worked flawlessly in two previous combustion experiments, but failed its initial leak checks when MIST was installed a day earlier.

3:39 p.m. ET — The Blue Team, or evening shift, wakes up to the Beach Boys singing "I Get Around." They later resume tests of their breathing, hearts and muscle associated with Advanced Respiratory Monitoring System.

5 p.m. ET — Chawla finishes repairs and reports back to Mission Control good leak checks to the combustion chamber.

Wednesday, Jan. 29

3:39 p.m. ET — Blue Team members Anderson, McCool and Brown wake up to the sounds of John Lennon's "Imagine."

McCool and Ramon remark how from their vantage point in space, Earth has no boundaries. "The world looks marvelous from up here, so peaceful, so wonderful and so fragile," Ramon said. Both crew members express, in English and Hebrew, their hopes for peace in the world.

"The science we're doing here is great and it's fantastic," says Anderson. "It's leading edge."

The astronauts take a break from their round-the-clock work and conduct a traditional in-orbit news conference to answer questions from reporters on Earth.

Thursday, Jan. 30

Command Husband examines the floor of Spacehab module for water from a balky air-conditioner. He reports to Mission Control that he didn't find any moisture, which could endanger the module during its scheduled Saturday landing, but he covers several holes as a precaution.

Commander Husband and flight engineer Chawla take turns at simulated shuttle landings using an on-board computer-based training system called PILOT. (Pilot McCool, the Blue Team leader, practices the landings overnight.)

Most of the mission's 80 scientific experiments have been concluded. The crew wraps up the last of the studies, including MIST, an experiment to study how mist of water instead of dangerous Haylon gas may be used to put out fires.

Friday, Jan. 31

Husband, McCool and Chawla activate one of the shuttle's three auxiliary power units and begin a standard pre-landing test and inspection of Columbia's flight control surfaces. Everything appears to be normal.

The flight crew test-fires Columbia's on-board "reaction control jets" — the chemical rockets that will slow the shuttle and maneuver the spacecraft out of orbit for landing on Saturday.

Israeli astronaut Ramon completes some final experiments, including studying electrical activity in thunderstorms.

The crew stows away gear and deactivates experiments in preparation for the next day's landing attempts. The first "window" of opportunity would occur at 8:15 a.m. ET.

Saturday, Feb. 1

In the early morning hours, the astronauts close the Spacehab, a laboratory module that occupied the entire shuttle's cargo bay. The lab contains most of the 80 scientific experiments conducted by the astronauts in day and night shifts on a 24-hour basis during the entire 16 days in orbit.

8:15 a.m. ET — Excellent weather at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida allows Mission Control to clear Columbia to fire its on-board rockets and begin its deorbiting routine.

As the shuttle crosses the California coastline, it's traveling through the upper atmosphere at over 20 times the speed of sound. Radar data would later suggest that the shuttle began its tragic breakup as it crossed over the middle of the state.

8:53 a.m. ET — Engineers at Mission Control notice a sudden loss of temperature readings in the hydraulic system in Columbia's left wing. Sensors in the well of the left landing gear show a significant rise in temperature — 20 to 30 degrees in five minutes.

8:54 a.m. ET — Sensors along the middle bond line where the left wing joins the main body of the shuttle show an unusual temperature spike of 60 degrees in five minutes. There is no indication of any increase in temperature in the adjacent cargo bay.

8:56 a.m. ET — Signals from the temperature sensors in the well of the left main landing gear drop off. Mission Control sends a notice to a cockpit electronic screen about the loss of temperature readings. The crew acknowledges the signal, but the temperature reading losses are not thought to be a problem.

8:58 a.m. ET — Columbia's flight computer automatically adjusts controls to correct for increased drag on the left side of the spacecraft. Pressure and temperature readings for the left main tire drop off. The ship is now traveling 13,200 miles per hour — 18 times the speed of sound. It is nearly 40 miles above New Mexico and about 1,400 miles from the Kennedy runway.

8:59 a.m. ET — The shuttle is now over west Texas and controllers on the ground again notice that Columbia's flight computer is steering the ship to the right. Mission Control contacts the shuttle: "Columbia, Houston, we see your tire pressure messages and we did not copy your last." There is a very short delay before the shuttle replies: "Roger, uh, buh …." The line is lost.

In the last few seconds of recorded computer data, evidence suggests that either shuttle commander Rick Husband or pilot Willie McCool might have attempted to take manual control of the landing process.

9 a.m. ET — Sixteen minutes away from its scheduled touchdown, Mission Control losses all radio, data, and telemetry contact with space shuttle Columbia. Repeated radio calls to the shuttle go unanswered. At the same time, residents in Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana hear a "big bang" and see distinct trails of flames in the sky.

9:17 a.m. ET — One minute after the scheduled landing time, NASA launches its "contingency action plan." President Bush, at Camp David, is informed that the shuttle is lost.

11 a.m. ET — NASA lowers the flag next to its countdown clock at Cape Canaveral, Fla., to half-staff.

2:05 p.m. ET — President Bush delivers the news of the Columbia space shuttle disaster to Americans, saying in a televised address: "The Columbia is lost. There are no survivors."