Recordbreakers

Columbia's marathon mission was expected to get within hours of the record 16-and-a-half days spent aloft by Endeavour's STS-67 crew a year earlier; on 29 June, it became official that STS-78 would snare that record for its own when NASA told the crew that they could remain in space until 7 July. The announcement was accompanied by background music from the movie 'Mission Impossible', but as the astronauts responded with high-fives, Henricks told Mission Control that they were all ''willing, able and eagerly anticipating'' the extension of their flight to almost 17 days in orbit.

As their mission wore on, it received nothing but praise from scientists. ''We have 41 Principal Investigators involved, and all but very few have 100%, if not 200%, of the data they had hoped to collect,'' said Patton Downey. It had already demonstrated the most complex and successful use of telescience to date, and Kevin Kregel in particular lauded the ability to conduct video-conferences and uplink video-taped repair procedures for the BDPU. ''It made fixes a lot easier,'' he told

Mission Control, ''as opposed to sending up the message and trying to interpret the fix on paper.''

Right on time, at 11:37 am on 7 July, Henricks and Kregel fired Columbia's OMS engines - during their record-breaking 271st circuit of the globe - to begin the glide back to KSC. An hour later, at 12:37:30 pm, she settled gracefully onto Runway 33, completing a mission of 16 days, 21 hours, 48 minutes and 30 seconds; eclipsing the earlier STS-67 record by about six hours. Television viewers would later be treated to a unique perspective of landing, thanks to the tiny video camera, which was mounted on a bracket on Kregel's glare shield in the Pilot's window.

The lipstick-sized device provided stunning coverage of the last seven minutes of Columbia's 20th descent from space. Immediately after disembarking, Henricks and Kregel participated in an Olympic Torch ceremony and told journalists ''it's been a pleasure to stay up this long, and we know it will be a short-lived record''. Their words proved prophetic: not only would the STS-78 record be broken again that same year, but it would be broken by Columbia herself, on her very next mission. The difference, on that flight - STS-80 - was that it would set a Shuttle endurance record that remains unbroken to this day.

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