The seven-member crew of the space shuttle Columbia was diverse in their heritage and their paths to space flight. Some of the astronauts traveled into space for the first time on Colombia. Others were veterans. All those on the ill-fated mission shared a long-held dream of space travel.
Mission commander Rick Husband, a U.S. Air Force colonel from Texas, said he had made up his mind as a child that he wanted to go into space. In comments before Columbia's January launch, he said he was thrilled to be able to live out his life-long dream.
Commander Husband said the shuttle was not going to the International Space Station this trip. Instead, the crew would be hard at work conducting science experiments. "We've got the crew split up into two shifts, the red shift and the blue shift," he said. "We'll be working around the clock doing our experiments."
One of the two women on board Columbia was Indian-born flight engineer Kalpana Chawla. I'm looking forward to this flight, of course, and part of the reason is, having flown once before, one of the colleagues in our office here used to say that, after you go to space once, you get addicted, and you want the same experience again," she said.
The other woman crew member, Laurel Clark, was a former U.S. Navy flight surgeon. "I'm really excited," she said. "This is my first flight going to space. While we're doing a huge number of different science experiments in different disciplines, I'm especially excited about the wide range of medical experiments that will benefit people that I know and patients here on earth."
Payload commander Michael Anderson was one of only a few black-American astronauts. Although he was on his second spaceflight, he stressed he was still excited to go. "I'm very much looking forward to this flight, and I just can't wait to get up there," he said.
Perhaps the most spotlighted crew member was Israeli Air Force colonel and fighter pilot Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli in space. Before the launch, Mr. Ramon said, for Israelis, his mission offered a distraction from hardships at home.
"In Israel today, as in other countries, there's a big, huge economic problems and unemployment, and this is, actually, the most important problem in Israel today," he said. "I think, people are very happy to be distracted by my flight and NASA flights, maybe to forget a little bit of their problems and get out there with us."
The tragic Columbia mission was the first spaceflight for the remaining two crew members, pilot William McCool and Doctor David Brown.
Both men came from the U.S. Navy and became astronauts in 1996.