A block or so away from the main entrance of the Johnson Space Center, in Clear Lake City, is a McDonald’s whose exterior is crowned with a hovering fiberglass astronaut. The astronaut is thirteen feet high. His left arm is outstretched, and in his open hand he is holding an order of fries.

When the space shuttle Columbia broke apart on reentry on February 1, I was in the middle of writing a novel about astronauts and the people who train them, and this fast-food monument on NASA Road 1 had become for me a strangely important imaginative locus. The book, as I was beginning to understand it, was less about spaceflight than about the consequences of ambition, about the tension between the compulsion to voyage beyond the atmosphere and the normal human obligations owed to those who count on you to stay at home.

I had set a scene in this McDonald’s. One of my main characters, an astronaut who has not yet been assigned to her first mission, takes her six-year-old son there for a Happy Meal after he has suffered an asthma attack at school. As she watches her vulnerable child crawl through the restaurant’s playscape, chronic fears seep into her mind, and she finds herself helplessly thinking about another astronaut, Christa McAuliffe, whose death in the 1986 Challenger explosion left her children motherless. When I was writing the scene, Challenger was real enough in memory but no longer, at least for most of us, painfully raw; it seemed harmless enough to appropriate the tragedy as literary ballast for my character. But the immediacy of the Columbia disaster momentarily blew the walls off my fictional world and called into question the worth and seemliness of creating imaginary people in the shadow of so much flesh-and-blood suffering.

In coming to know those imaginary people, though, I had come to know a little about their real-life counterparts and the world they inhabit, a world that is at once distinguished by an exalted purpose without parallel in human history and grounded in homely workaday particulars. For me, it was the McDonald’s on NASA Road 1 that somehow best exemplified the gravitational pull of normal life in a company town whose business is sending people beyond the reach of gravity itself.

The launch of the space shuttle Discovery in November 1999.Photograph by Dan Winters

Clear Lake City, the world headquarters of manned spaceflight, is at first glance the world headquarters of nothing much. Along with a number of other communities—Friendswood, League City, Webster—with which it has indistinguishably merged, it marks the southeastern extremity of metropolitan Houston. You might find a “Watch for Alligators” sign or two poking up from the sluggish bayous that meander around the margins of Galveston Bay, but except for such tokens of primeval mystery, Clear Lake is a straightforward exurban landscape of strip malls and theme restaurants and Lasik surgery clinics. As for the Johnson Space Center itself, it seems proud not to be noticed. It’s a vast, sprawling hive with no apparent buzz. The only nod to its own wondrous history is a dutiful presentation, just inside the main gate, of the massive Saturn V rocket that once sent men to the moon. Otherwise, the JSC has the rambling acreage and the architecturally blank buildings of a hospital complex or a cheerless junior college.

Overall, Clear Lake City is an unassuming community into which astronauts are unobtrusively woven. They live on streets with names like Amber Knoll and Ardent Oak. They gather at well-known hangouts like the Outpost Tavern or Frenchie’s or Pe-Te’s but are just as likely to be in the cafeteria line at Luby’s or in the checkout aisle at Kroger. The woman cheering her kid from the sidelines of a soccer game might have come home two days ago from a mission that took her 250 miles above earth. On her bracelet she might be wearing a space shuttle charm from James Avery that her husband gave her before she went into quarantine. The polo shirts with the mission logo worn by her and her crew came from Lands’ End. In her children’s elementary school, hers is one of dozens of photographs in a hallway display titled “Astronaut Moms and Dads,” an extensive gallery of smiling men and women in orange pressure suits.

One of the sturdiest clichés about the shuttle program is that it represents a modern-day version of the passing of the frontier—that the more multifunctional, multicultural, and unprepossessing astronauts become, the further they are from some primal ideal laid down by that generation of squinty-eyed test pilots who rode the first rockets into space. But to anyone who has glanced at the biographical sketches of the Columbia crew—among whom were a submarine medical officer, a former circus acrobat, and an Israeli fighter pilot who fought in the Yom Kippur War and took part in a brazen attack on an Iraqi nuclear reactor—this observation is tediously irrelevant. Astronauts are still members of an aristocracy of achievement, they still have a dazzling inner focus, and because they willingly confront dangers like being launched into space on top of a liquid hydrogen bomb containing 1.6 million pounds of explosive fuel, they are likely to have developed the enticing professional remoteness that we associate with stardom.

But spaceflight has changed in ways that have inevitably leached some of the glamour away. The shuttle is a vehicle less for exploratory voyaging than for near-shore exploitation of space. Its primary job these days is the servicing and maintenance of the International Space Station. Compared with the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María, the shuttle is more like a crew boat ferrying personnel and supplies to an offshore drilling platform. When those supplies are unloaded in the weightlessness of space, astronauts, like grocery stockers, keep track of the inventory with bar code readers. In orbit, they receive a per diem of just $2.

On the ground the reality is just as poignantly stark. In the weeks before the launch of the 1997 shuttle flight that would deliver him to the crumbling old Mir space station for four and a half months, astronaut Michael Foale recalled puttering around his house, replacing rotten doorjambs. For what, considering the alarming condition of Mir, could very well have been the last vacation of his life, he took his family not to some distant exotic getaway but to humble Corpus Christi. One astronaut told me that what struck him most upon returning home from two weeks in space was that his grass needed mowing. U.S. senator Bill Nelson, then a Florida congressman, flew as a payload specialist on Columbia on the last shuttle flight before Challenger exploded on takeoff in 1986. The same day he landed in California, he flew back to Clear Lake City and tried to check into the Hilton across the street from the JSC. He was still wearing his flight suit, and NASA had made a reservation in his name. But the reception manager wouldn’t let him check in because he had left his wallet, with his credit cards, at the Kennedy Space Center, in Florida.

“Ma’am,” he pleaded, “I just came back from space. I don’t have any credit cards with me.”

The woman, according to Nelson, was unmoved.

Such trivialities would be unremarkable in any other profession, but everyday details tend to stand out in odd relief when set against the dimensions and dangers of an astronaut’s life.

Astronaut Neil A. Armstrong, commander of the historic Apollo 11 lunar landing mission, and the first man to set foot on the Moon, cuts his birthday cake as he celebrated his 39th birthday, on August 5, 1969. NASA

“What’s the reason I’m doing it this time?” an astronaut told me she asked herself as she waited, strapped into the mid-deck of the shuttle, for liftoff. It was her second mission, she had a young child, and she knew all too well the odds of a major malfunction at launch.

Launches are terrifying; it’s not hard to get an astronaut to admit it. In the weeks beforehand, they make sure their wills are in order. They might write letters to their kids or make tapes for them because, as astronaut Andy Allen puts it bluntly in a recent book, “Daddy might blow up . . .”

For weeks before the launch, the pad at the Kennedy Space Center is swarming with hundreds of technicians, but when the day comes and the astronauts are finally driven out to the shuttle, there is a sudden eerie stillness that makes them feel alone and vulnerable. The great challenge of the interminable wait for liftoff is not to pee. Astronauts are equipped with diapers but are eager not to use them. Some make a point of jogging the evening before the launch or sitting in a whirlpool to force as much moisture as possible out of their bodies. During the official launch breakfast before the astronauts depart for the pad, no one even thinks about drinking coffee.

At ignition, the three main engines and two solid rocket boosters produce almost six and a half million pounds of thrust. The noise and shaking that the astronauts experience inside the orbiter as it clears the pad and storms into space is of an intensity that is still shocking after months of training. It takes eight and a half minutes to get into space. After the external tank and the solid rocket boosters drop away, the ride changes from a teeth-rattling struggle to a silken glide. The moment that every astronaut prays to live to reach is MECO—main engine cutoff. The minutes from liftoff to MECO have always been regarded as the most dangerous part of a mission, though after the destruction of Columbia on reentry, every shuttle flight will now be bracketed with visceral hazard.

Weightlessness is entrancing and disorienting. Every task takes longer to do; there is a dreamy lethargy of movement. For some reason no one has quite explained, weightlessness makes food taste bland, and astronauts find themselves craving spicy condiments. A significant percentage of astronauts are overcome with space sickness and have to float around for two or three days with barf bags at the ready, though like every other weightless endeavor, throwing up is tricky and time-consuming. In space, the lack of gravity extends the spine and temporarily makes people a few inches taller, though it also gives them backaches. Natural posture changes from upright to a kind of fetal curl. Fluids shift to the center of the body and to the head, making legs skinnier and chests bigger, and faces puffy. Since being weightless feels a little like floating in water, there is a natural inclination to propel oneself using the breaststroke, but this action has no effect whatsoever. If an astronaut begins to weep, which happens from time to time, the tears do not fall. They just form and hover at the corners of the eyes. When it is time for bed, astronauts strap themselves into baglike sleep restraints, and when they are unconscious, their arms drift upward, as if they are slowly grasping at something in their dreams. Sometimes, as their arms move that way, they talk in their sleep.

Their waking hours are heavily loaded with docking procedures, experiments, satellite deployments, and various maintenance and construction errands involving the space station, but sometimes they steal precious time from their sleep schedules and drift up to the orbiter windows to look down on the earth. Astronauts speak of the sight of the earth from space with an enthusiasm that borders on rhapsody. Listening on their Walkmans to John Denver or Judy Collins or some other artist of folkie majesty, they watch the advancing light of the sun creep up over the rim of the nighttime planet and shatter into glorious bands of color. They see streaming plumes of smoke and ash from volcanoes, the white throbs of lightning in oceanic clouds, sometimes even the greenish pulsations of the northern lights. But at times this godlike perspective can grow sinister and isolating. “I could see the whole world, but I felt I had no connection to it,” one astronaut told me. William R. Pogue, a Skylab astronaut, wrote that when he embarked on a space walk, he was so unnerved by the presence of deep, pure space that he was reminded of a Bible passage about the “horror of great darkness.”

An aerial photograph of NASA’s Johnson Space Center on September 7, 1990.NASA

Space is such a distant and dreamlike destination that it is a little hard to imagine that when it is time for the astronauts to come home from orbit, it takes them less time than it might to drive in rush-hour traffic from one end of Houston to the other: an hour and a half, more or less, from the time the shuttle begins its deorbit burn until it lands on the Florida marshlands. The fact that Columbia was so close to home when it was destroyed is only one of many bitter ironies. Because I had gotten to know a few members of the training teams that prepare astronauts for their missions, when I first heard about the disaster, my thoughts turned in their direction. For a year or more before every mission, these teams work with the astronauts on an almost day-to-day basis, sitting behind consoles as they run the crews through increasingly more complex and confounding training exercises in the shuttle simulators. The bond that develops from so many months of relentless work and shared enterprise has a familial intensity. An instructor tells Henry S.F. Cooper, Jr., in his book Before Lift-Off that when the launch date finally arrives, the training team feels as if they are flying in the crew’s bodies.

There is a venerable tradition at the Johnson Space Center that usually takes place a day or so before the crew returns to earth. The team that trained them for the mission is in charge of decorating the hallway of the building where the astronauts’ offices are located. This decorating of the hall is serious business. It is, as Lisa Reed, a former training team lead, told me without a trace of self-consciousness, a “labor of love.” Both sides of the hallway are garlanded with streamers and balloons. There are also cartoons, jokey top-ten lists, photographs that were taken during training or that were downlinked from the mission itself, all suitably captioned with some quip or exasperated comment or malapropism mischievously recorded during training in the instructors’ logbooks.

If the hall was decorated in the usual fashion for the return of STS-107, the official designation of Columbia’s last flight, one of the items that would have been put up, and then soberly taken down when the homecoming did not take place, was a huge color printout of the mission patch. Patches are also serious business. During one of my trips to the JSC, I asked to visit the Graphics and Publications office. Located across the street from the astronauts’ gym, Graphics and Publications is housed in a drab one-story, brick and metal building that looks like the office of an oil-field equipment company. Inside, though, it is more like a hip design studio, with graphic artists peering at their Macintosh screens amid a talismanic clutter of toys and action figures.

When a crew is assigned to a mission, one of the first things they do is get together, rough out a sketch, and appoint a “patch coordinator” to present their ideas to the designers. Technically, the coordinator is supposed to be the only crew member authorized to discuss the matter, but since the Graphics and Publications building is so close to the gym, and since early in their training the astronauts have more time on their hands, they tend to drop by and badger the designers with advice.

They want the patch to represent them. It is the enduring physical legacy of each flight. It’s not unheard of for astronauts to go through fifty revisions of the image before sending it to the Center Director for final approval. Sometimes they have an unrealistic grasp of the limitations of the medium. They present the designers with what are essentially engineering diagrams, depicting the shuttle or the space station with a level of detail that could never be achieved with an image made of thread. They are limited to only eight colors, but veteran astronauts who have flown before are sometimes obsessed with trying to pin down in the patch the exact shade of darkest blue they saw out of the window of the orbiter or visually charting the haunting gradations of color from sunlight to black space. They often want some subtle symbolic reference to their children or some nod to the nicknames—the Sardines, the Maggots, the Hairballs—of the classes in which they matriculated with fellow astronaut candidates.

The fate of Columbia was in some ways more like a shipwreck in the sky than anything we have encountered before in our sketchy catalog of space horrors. Unlike Challenger, Columbia did not blow up before it escaped the atmosphere, with its broken parts falling discreetly into the sea. Returning from space, it broke apart on the treacherous atmosphere like an oceangoing vessel splintering on a reef. The flotsam rained down upon East Texas and Louisiana, and one of the things that washed down from the sky was a mission patch from STS-107.

When I saw this patch in a newspaper photograph, it was scorched but whole, lying in the grass. Its shape was the shape of the shuttle itself, probably not a configuration the designers would have recommended, since the sharp edges of the wings and the tail would tend to fray over time. In the middle of the patch was the astronaut symbol, three soaring rays of light passing through a crown and topped off with a star. A cluster of stars on the left wing represented the constellation Columba. In the constellation were seven stars, one for each crew member, and along the margins of the wing their names were worked into the fabric: Husband, Brown, Clark, Chawla, Anderson, Ramon, McCool.

Of all the debris, this patch was among the humblest, one of many patches just like it that the crew had taken up into space to give out later as tokens to friends or family. It would certainly be useless in helping to determine the cause of Columbia’s destruction, but I could not look at this patch without feeling that stitched deep into the fabric was some sort of discernible clue to understanding the men and women who had dreamed of flying to the heavens, and who had died trying to come home to earth.