Lt. Col. Michael P. Anderson called flying for the Air Force "one great adventure."
And after growing up on military bases, the son of an Air Force pilot, and flying for the Air Force, Anderson achieved what seemed the greatest adventure of all when NASA chose him in 1995 as one of only seven black astronauts.
During a pre-mission interview before flying the Columbia, the 43-year-old Plattsburgh, N.Y., native recalled that he had spent his entire life around aircraft.
"That was something else that really captured my imagination, just seeing airplanes, you know, taking off and landing every day, and flying over the house, and making all of this noise just was a fascinating thing to me as a kid," he said.
Anderson, who reached space for the first time on the 1998 shuttle-Mir docking mission, was in charge of dozens of science experiments on the Columbia mission.
"I think a lot of our experiments have exceeded our expectations by 100 percent," he said earlier in the journey. "We've seen things we never expected to see."
He added, during an in-flight news conference, "This flight has been absolutely fantastic, the science has been spectacular and we just can't wait to bring it all home so the scientists can really take a close look at what we've done."
But he also spoke about the dangers associated with space travel. "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."
He added: "For me, it's the fact that what I'm doing can have great consequences and great benefits for everyone, for mankind."