*

Columbia rose that winter morning on plumes of fire and steam.

Gathered in bleachers along the Banana River at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, spectators whispered prayers and cheered.

"My God. Oh, my God."

"There they go."

"Go! Go! Go!"

At 81.9 seconds into the flight, a large block of foam and two smaller ones broke off the left side of the external tank.

Columbia was at an altitude of 65,860 feet, traveling at 1,668 mph.

The largest block, tumbling at 18 times a second, smashed a hole in the spacecraft's left wing.

A pair of pressure sensors on the underside of the wing registered an unusual strain along the leading edge between panels No. 6 and No. 8 immediately after the impact.

The warning spooled onto the tape of the shuttle's flight data recorder under a crew seat but was not transmitted to the crew or Mission Control.

Two video cameras on the ground captured the strike. One was about 17 miles from the launch site at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the other 26 miles away at Cocoa Beach.

Photo analysts worried. They asked permission to seek clearer images of the wing to inspect for possible damage.

Permission was denied.

*

Weightless above the planet, Laurel Clark videotaped pink roses and rice flowers in an experiment to develop space-based perfumes.

Ilan Ramon monitored dust storms over the Middle East and searched for lightning sprites.

In a series of combustion experiments for USC, the crew tried to determine the smallest amount of fuel that would ignite in a fire and the smallest amount of water that would extinguish it.

They conjured up the smallest flame ever seen.

David Brown filmed the tiny flame balls in a combustion chamber.