On 1 February 2003, high above Texas, the unthinkable happened. With horrifying suddenness, Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated during her descent from a highly-productive 16-day science mission. Her entire crew of seven, including Israel's first astronaut, perished in the disaster. On that terrible Saturday, a spectre that had haunted NASA for 17 years, since the 1986 loss of Challenger, returned with a vengeance. I was only nine years old when Challenger exploded and remember little of what happened; the destruction of Columbia, by stark contrast, seemed far closer and more personal.

Almost two years earlier, in the spring of 2001, I was fortunate to speak to Rick Husband, who was in command of Columbia on her final mission. I found him to be courteous and warm, with an enthusiasm and openness so typical of many spacefarers. An avid collector of astronaut autographs, I have personalised signed portraits of five of the ill-fated STS-107 crew - Husband, Willie McCool, Dave Brown, Kalpana Chawla and Mike Anderson - and countless others of Columbia veterans. I treasure them all, but those of the STS-107 fliers I now prize particularly highly.

This book is not meant as a study of what happened to Columbia on her last flight, but rather as a celebration of her entire incredible career. Over the past two years, I have spoken to many people who, upon hearing the name of America's first Space Shuttle, have remembered her only as ''the one that broke up during re-entry''. I feel that this is, to say the very least, an unfair epitaph. Columbia has a long and chequered history and in her 28 missions since April 1981 has scored some remarkable triumphs.

She was the first 'used' manned spacecraft to be blasted into orbit more than once. She supported the debut of the European-built Spacelab research facility and Canada's Remote Manipulator System (RMS), the latter of which is routinely used today to build the International Space Station. She was first to prove the Shuttle's worth as a mini-space station in its own right and as an Earth-circling launch pad from which to boost satellites into geosynchronous and higher orbits to provide communications and reconnaissance, support research in geodetics and electrodynamics, process semiconductors and peer into the Universe with state-of-the-art X-ray and ultraviolet eyes.

Columbia has also plucked spacecraft from orbit in delicate, 28,000 km/h orbital ballets, staged ambitious spacewalks to upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope and holds the current record for having flown the longest Shuttle mission, at almost 18 days. Yet this is scarcely half of her story. Her history is far more than 'just' 28 standalone mission reports: she has countless other tales from the 126 men and women, representing eight different nations, who have spent more than 300 days gazing Earthwards or outwards into the Universe through her windows.

My goal in writing this book was to gather technical esoterica about Columbia and attempt to balance it with 'human' stories from the remarkable pilots, physicists, engineers, doctors and professors who flew on her. I have attempted to weave 'mundane' technical facts, payload details and processing issues with stories of ''incredible'' rides into orbit, ''oh, wow'' glimpses of the grandeur of Earth, the unique and highly coveted ability to pull one's trousers onto both legs at the same time and a congressman's light-hearted disappointment at being greeted with Californian, rather than Floridian, oranges and grapefruits upon landing at Edwards Air Force Base.

At the time of writing, Space Shuttle Discovery is only weeks away from undertaking the crucial Return To Flight mission and NASA's three surviving orbiters will have their work cut out over the next five years if they are to complete the International Space Station before being retired in 2010. It is with intense sadness, as astronaut Jay Buckey once said, that Columbia will never take pride of place in the Smithsonian; but her mission and legacy are far from over. In fact, her shattered remains are now used by engineers and materials scientists to help to design future hypersonic vehicles.

A fitting tribute, if ever one were needed, for a quite remarkable spacecraft.

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