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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Portrait of the Columbia Crew

For two years, the five men and two women of the space shuttle Columbia's crew prepared for a grueling 16-day scientific mission whose 80 experiments would require them to divide into two teams and work around the clock.

Air Force Colonel Rick D. Husband, the mission commander, took the team that included Israel's first astronaut, an Indian-born U.S. aerospace engineer and a Navy doctor, who had reassured her worried 8-year-old son of the shuttle's safety shortly before liftoff. Navy commander William C. McCool, Columbia's pilot, headed the other team, which included one of NASA's seven black astronauts and another Navy doctor who once worked as a circus acrobat.

By the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's current standards, the crew of STS-107 -- as their mission formally was called -- was relatively inexperienced. Only three -- Husband, Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Michael P. Anderson and Kalpana Chawla -- had flown in space before. McCool, Israeli Air Force Colonel Ilan Ramon, Naval Flight Surgeon Laurel Clark and U.S. Navy Capt David M. Brown were rookies.

Anderson, who loved flying, warned the rookies to prepare themselves for the rigors of the launch, which he disliked. "It's the risk factor," he said. "There's always the unknown." In 42 years of U.S. manned space flight, there had not been an accident during the descent to Earth.

Experience and careful study of missions involving multinational crews, such as Columbia's, has taught NASA that success requires more than technical training. So their preparation involved, among other things, a comparative study of the leadership styles of 19th-century British naval explorers James Cook, the great South Seas navigator, and William Bligh of Bounty infamy. In August, they trekked into Wyoming's remote Wind River Mountains, where each of the seven was leader-for-a-day, as they crossed the rugged Continental Divide from the west.

"Astronauts in general are very hard-charging, motivated people, who in general are used to being leaders," Clark, the flight surgeon, said. But it is vital, she said, that on "any space flight that ... you're working together as a team."

When the time came to climb 4,000-meter Wind River Peak, the Columbia crew had to decide whether to choose only their best climbers or attempt the assault as a group. They all made the climb.

On Tuesday, the Columbia's astronauts joined in a moment of reverential silence for the seven crew members of the Space Shuttle Challenger, who died on that day, 17 years ago. On Saturday, fate joined the five men and two women of Columbia to the colleagues they mourned.

"Their dedication and devotion to the exploration of space was an inspiration to each of us," Husband radioed moments before the moment of silence Tuesday.