They were from Texas, Wisconsin, Israel and India. Some dreamed of going into space since they were children, some from watching Star Trek on television.
The seven men and women who died aboard the U.S. space shuttle Columbia on Saturday came from diverse backgrounds, with families on two continents and experiences on submarines, the U.S. Air Force and the circus.
They included an Eagle Scout who followed in his father's footsteps as a naval aviator. One of a handful of black astronauts to go into space. A gymnast who worked as a circus acrobat. A child of a Holocaust survivor. A flight surgeon whose cousin died in the World Trade Center. A colonel who sang in his church choir. And the first Indian-born woman in space.
In Spokane, Wash., where he grew up, Lieutenant-Colonel Michael Anderson was such a success story that Rev. Happy Watkins used a signed picture of the astronaut as a motivational tool when the clergyman spoke to youngsters.
"It shows him in an astronaut suit standing next to the Columbia spaceship," said Mr. Watkins, Lt.-Col. Anderson's former Sunday school teacher. "The kids can look at him and see he is black. . . . If he can aspire to be the best, [they] can be the best."
Payload commander Anderson was teaching pilots how to fly refuelling aircraft at Plattsburgh Air Force Base in New York when NASA chose him as one of only a handful of black astronauts.
"He was ideally suited for it," said Rich Cantwell, chief of military justice at the base. "He knew what his job was and he was one of those guys who could do his job so well and make it look so easy."
The son of an Air Force man, Lt.-Col. Anderson was born in Plattsburgh, grew up on military bases but considered Spokane his hometown. He developed his love of flying early.
"I was always fascinated by science-fiction shows, shows like Star Trek and Lost in Space,"Lt.-Col. Anderson, 43, said in a recent interview. "I thought being an astronaut would be the perfect job."
In 1998, Lt.-Col. Anderson travelled to Russia's Mir space station aboard the shuttle Endeavour. On the Columbia mission, he was in charge of dozens of science experiments. To him, the risks of flying were worth it. "I take the risk because I think what we're doing is really important . . . the potential yield that we have is really tremendous."
David Brown was a varsity gymnast at the College of William and Mary in Virginia when he got a phone call: Would he like to join the circus? So during the summer of 1976, he was an acrobat, tumbler, stilt walker and unicycle rider.
"What I really learned from that, and transfers directly to what I'm doing on this crew, is kind of the team work and the safety and the staying focused, even at the end of a long day when you're tired and you're doing some things that may have some risk to them," he said.
Dr. Brown's interest in science and technology dates to high school, when he used a short-wave radio to communicate with a friend in Russia, his family said.
Dr. Brown, a Navy pilot and a physician, received his undergraduate biology degree from William and Mary in 1978 and earned his medical degree from Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk in 1982. He joined the Navy after his medical internship and went on to fly the A-6E Intruder and FA-18 Hornet.
NASA chose him as an astronaut in 1996. A mission specialist, he helped with the scientific experiments on the shuttle Columbia. He worked the graveyard shift on Columbia's round-the-clock science mission and said Friday that the crew was looking forward to coming home: "As much as we've enjoyed it up here, we're also starting to look forward to seeing all the people back on Earth that we miss and love so much."
When Kalpana Chawla emigrated to the United States from India in the 1980s, she wanted to design aircraft. The space program was the furthest thing from her mind.
"That would be too far-fetched," the 41-year-old engineer said in an interview earlier this year. But "one thing led to another" and she was chosen as an astronaut in 1994 after working at NASA's Ames Research Center.
Ms. Chawla was the first native of India to fly on a space shuttle but the second in space after a countryman flew on a Soviet mission in 1984. She said she never thought about being "the first or second someone" in space. "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."
On her only other spaceflight, in 1997, she made mistakes that sent a science satellite tumbling out of control. Other astronauts had to go on a spacewalk to capture it. NASA later acknowledged that the instructions to the crew may not have been clear.
"After I had basically sorted that out," said Ms. Chawla, who liked to fly tail-wheel airplanes, "I figured it's time to really look at the future and not at the past."
Laurel Clark was a diving medical officer aboard submarines and then a flight surgeon before she became an astronaut in 1996. She had been on board Columbia to help with more than 80 science experiments.
"She was doing something that she cared deeply about, that she was very good at," said her father, Robert Salton of Albuquerque, N.M. In fact, he said, "she was pretty good at everything."
The 41-year-old was married with an eight-year-old son and lived in Racine, Wis.
Dr. Clark joined the Navy to pay her way through medical school, joined NASA in 1996 and two years later earned a flight assignment as a mission specialist.
She said her family, including son Ian, sometimes worried about her being an astronaut. "To me, there's a lot of different things that we do during life that could potentially harm us, and I choose not to stop doing those things."
Her family already had been racked by tragedy: her cousin Timothy Haviland died in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center.
Four days before he was killed, Colonel Rick Husband asked his crew to take a moment of silence to remember the astronauts who died in previous space disasters.
"It is today that we remember and honour the crews of Apollo 1 and Challenger," the shuttle commander said on Tuesday, the 17th anniversary of the Challenger explosion. "They made the ultimate sacrifice."
The 45-year-old U.S. Air Force colonel, a test pilot before he was selected as an astronaut in 1994, was on his second spaceflight. He piloted the Discovery shuttle for 10 days in 1999 on the first mission to dock with the space station.
Col. Husband studied at Texas Tech University and earned his master's degree in 1990 from California State University in Fresno. He lived in Houston with his wife and two children, and regularly sang in the Grace Community Church choir.
Commander William McCool was an experienced Navy pilot with more than 2,800 hours in flight. But two weeks into his first trip into space, the 41-year-old astronaut was amazed.
"There is so much more than what I ever expected," Cdr. McCool told National Public Radio on Jan. 30 from the space shuttle Columbia. "It's beyond imagination, until you actually get up and see it and experience it and feel it.
Cdr. McCool, 41, grew up building model airplanes in Lubbock, Tex., and followed in his father's footsteps as a naval aviator. Known as "Cool Willie" in high school, he went on to graduate second in his class from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1983. Later he was assigned to test-pilot school and deployed aboard aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean Sea. He became an astronaut in 1996. The mission was his first spaceflight.
He was married with three sons aged 14 to 22. His mother, Audrey McCool, said Saturday her son's death should not stop the country from sending men and women into space. "We want the space mission to go on," she said. "We don't want those people to have died in vain."
Israel's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, knew he was carrying the hopes of a people into space.
The 48-year-old Israeli air force colonel carried a microfiche of the Bible given to him by his country's president, a tiny Torah scroll given to a Holocaust survivor at a Nazi camp and a small pencil drawing titled Moon Landscape by a boy killed at the Auschwitz camp. The son of a Holocaust survivor, he also took a silver-and-copper mezuzah into space with a star of David ringed with barbed wire.
"Ilan wanted a symbol of the Holocaust to carry with him into space," said Aimee Golant, the artist who crafted the mezuzah, which traditionally graces the door of a Jewish home.
NASA selected Col. Ramon in 1997 to be a payload specialist. Along with his wife and their four children, he had been living in Texas for several years as he prepared for the flight.
Friend Ronit Federman said she took comfort from the e-mails Col. Ramon sent from space. "He wrote about the divine happiness of looking at Earth," she told Israel's Channel 10 television. "He wrote that he would like to keep floating for the rest of his life. That was the last sentence he wrote."