It looked like there would be a perfect ending to a perfect mission. But, unbeknownst to all, the shuttle had sustained damage during takeoff, when a piece of the foam insulation from the external tank flaked off during launch, and punched a hole in the carbon composite leading end of the left wing. But as Columbia was passing through the thousands-degree plasma of re-entry, those hot gases penetrated the left wing.
Sixteen minutes before the touchdown... sixteen minutes before the end of their sixteen day mission... the shuttle broke up and disintegrated over the southwest United States (mostly in Texas, although video showed pieces coming off as early as when the shuttle was over California).
Ilan Ramon had the honor of being the first astronaut from the country of Israel.
Launch - January 16
Mission Time - 16 days
Vehicle Lost - 16 minutes before landing
Again, it was the human element that failed. Nearly every mission had foam breaking off the ET and we had "gotten away" without any serious damage to the shuttle. But, as in the past, these things don't always turn out for the best. And again, there was another investigation, and more promises that it will "probably never happen again."
Well, things were changed, and in July of 2005 Discovery launched on a test mission.
So we are back in space. But have we learned the lessons of the past? How soon until there is another "accident?" We can only hope it's a long way off, if ever. But, that is the price we pay to be explorers.