They were hometown heroes, much-loved sons, daughters, husbands and wives. They lived lives on earth and among the stars. They talked about the mundane and the magnificent, and people wanted to to hear what they had to say.
Here is a look at the seven Columbia astronauts, in their own words, as reported by wire services, television networks and their newspapers, both hometown and college:
David Brown, 46, was a Navy captain, pilot and doctor who became an astronaut in 1996. Columbia's mission was his first spaceflight. In September, Brown, a 1978 graduate of the College of William and Mary, spoke to freshmen at the college's opening convocation. The college newspaper, The Flat Hat, reported:
"In his speech, Brown attributed the academic rigor of the College and his participation on the varsity gymnastics squad as influential to his development.
'The broad liberal arts scope prepares you to undertake almost anything,' Brown said. 'And when you're on the gymnastics team, you need to have a competitive streak with other people but at the same time you should also be a team player.'
". . . Besides his collegiate athletic involvement, Brown was also a Resident Assistant and performed in the Circus Kingdom as an acrobat, seven-foot unicyclist and stilt walker. In addition to doing shows at Busch Gardens, the traveling performers also made excursions to almost every state in New England.
"'When I was a freshman, it was never in my mind that I would go to med school. It was never in my mind that I would land a jet on a ship. When I thought about being an astronaut, it was the coolest thing I could imagine but I could not see the path for how I would do that.'
"'I didn't set any records [at the College]. I applied to Navy flight training. I was rejected. I reapplied. I got in. I applied to NASA, I was rejected. I reapplied. I got in. There's something to be said here about not being afraid to have vision, not being afraid to take risks and the real value of persistence.'"
In another interview, Brown was asked about the risks of space flight. "I made a decision that is part of my job, I would incur some real risk as a routine part of my job when I joined the Navy and started flying ... And I think that was a decision that I made some years ago and the decision to go fly in space is just an extension of that.
Laurel Clark, 41, was a diving medical officer aboard submarines and a flight surgeon before she became an astronaut in 1996. She was from Racine, Wis., and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel carefully followed her journey.
She had an 8-year-old son, and took a sheet with her from his first-grade class. The children had put their fingerprints on it, along with their photos.
"This has been a great experience for me," she told the newspaper in an interview from space. "The first couple of days you don't always feel too well. I feel wonderful now. The first couple of days you adjust to the fluid shifting, how to fly through space without hitting things or anybody else. But then after a couple of days you get in a groove. It's just an incredibly magical place."
She described watching the sunset from space.
"There's a flash - the whole payload bay turns this rosy pink. It only lasts about 15 seconds and then it's gone. It's very ethereal and extremely beautiful."
At one point, the temperature rose to 84 degrees in the part of the module where the crew exercised.
"A pina colada would have been really nice," Clark said, commenting after the problem had been fixed. "We're all very comfy right now."
During the mission, the crew oversaw some student experiments that involved ants, spiders, bees, fish and silkworms.
"One of the silkworm cocoons had just recently hatched," she said. "There was a moth in there, and it still had its wings crumpled up, and it was just starting to pump its wings up. Life continues in lots of places, and life is a magical thing."
Clark described herself as a "boring straight A student" without many hobbies at Horlick High School, though she was on the swim team and in the ski club.
Ilan Ramon, 48, an Israeli air force colonel was the first Israeli in space.
"I know my flight is very symbolic for the people of Israel, especially the survivors, the Holocaust survivors, because I was born in Israel, many people will see this as a dream that is come true," Ramon said before the launch. "I was born in Israel and I'm kind of the proof for my parents and their generation that whatever we've been fighting for in the last century is becoming true."
Ramon said he was not nervous or afraid. "I think the only thing that will worry me is the launch sequence and the systems and the launch, being launched on time. The tenseness is there because everybody wants to be launched on time with no failures. That's it. Once you're there, you're there."
Kalpana Chawla, 41, was on her second trip into space. She was an engineer, born in India, who emigrated to the United States in 1982 and became an American citizen.
She told Indian reporters, who carefully followed her adventure, that she was inspired to take up flying by J.R.D. Tata, who flew the first mail flights in India.
"When you look at the stars and the galaxy, you feel that you are not just from any particular piece of land, but from the solar system," Chawla said in an interview with the newspaper India Today.
"It's like running a marathon race," she told News India-Times. "We train all hours of the day. When you are taking a bath you are thinking of the flight. You wake up, you are thinking of a malfunction that .
Rick Husband, 45, was an Air Force pilot and commander of the Columbia. He was a skier and cyclist, and when he wanted to find out if his diverse crew could get along well under pressure decided to take them on an outdoor trip.
In August 2001, they undertook a difficult 11 -day camping trip in the mountains in Wyoming. Carrying 75-pound packs, they climbed the 13,000-foot Wind River Peak.
He spoke to CNN as the shuttle flew 150 miles above the Pacific Ocean at 17,300 miles an hour.
"Well, things are going really great," he said. "We're having a great time up here. We had a great ride to orbit, and all the activation of the experiments and [everything] went extremely well. And we've really got our space legs up and up running."
In an interview posted on the NASA Web site, Husband said he became interested in being an astronaut when he watched the moon walk.
"You can't eliminate risk in anything you do," he said. "But, what you try and do is: you take a good, smart look at it and try to minimize those risks to maximize your chances for success."
Pilot William McCool, 41, was a Navy commander who grew up in Lubbock, Texas and graduated second in his 1983 class at the Naval Academy. He went on to test pilot school and became an astronaut in 1996. He was dazzled by the mission even thought he was an experienced Navy pilot with more than 2,800 hours in flight.
"There is so much more than what I ever expected," McCool told National Public Radio on Jan. 30 from the space shuttle. "It's beyond imagination, until you actually get up and see it and experience it and feel it."
He also was one of several crew members who participated in experiments -- from giving blood to exercising on a stationary cycle -- to help determine how the human body reacts to space.
"I'll tell you, there's nothing better than listening to a good album and looking out the windows and watching the world go by while you pedal on the bike."
And, he told CNN, "You are very much bang for the buck, in the sense that we're packing so much science into one 16-day mission. A lot of it is applicable in the long term. Admittedly, you're not going to see results tomorrow. A lot of it is results tomorrow-ish kind of science."
Payload commander Michael Anderson, 43, was the son of an Air Force man and grew up on military bases. He was flying for the Air Force when NASA chose him in 1994 as one of only a handful of black astronauts.
"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 said. He added: "For me, it's the fact that what I'm doing can have great consequences and great benefits for everyone, for mankind."
Anderson, who oversaw the scientific experiments on the flight, told NPR in an interview from space.
"So far, I have to tell you, we've been really pleased with what we're seeing," he said. "We're exceeding almost all of our expectations, and we're getting some really good science."
Anderson also talked about the advances black astronauts are making, with three others expected to fly in other missions.
"It looks like the future's really bright," Anderson told NPR.