The 13-minute video released by NASA documents the four astronauts on Columbia's flight deck -- commander Rick Husband, pilot Willie McCool, flight engineer Kalpana Chawla and mission specialist Laurel Clark -- from about 8:35 to 8:48 a.m. EST on Feb.1. The first indication of trouble aboard the spaceship was relayed to ground control teams four minutes later and nine minutes before communications with the crew were lost.
Astronaut Scott Altman, who was the commander of the previous Columbia crew, said the tape is typical of what a shuttle crew would be doing in preparation for landing.
Husband is drinking his fourth bag of water in a routine procedure to stave off dizziness and prepare his body for the downward shift of fluids that occurs upon return to Earth's gravity.
McCool, a rookie pilot, is clearly awed by the spectacle of plasma flashing around the orbiter's nose, which is visible to the crew and the camera through the shuttle's forward and overhead windows.
Chawla is following re-entry procedures, calling out milestones to her commander and pilot, taking care of Husband's discarded drink bag and trying to find a few minutes to finish putting on her gloves.
Clark is holding the camera, which was passed back to her after several minutes of taping from a mounted fixture above McCool. After a smile shot of Chawla, seated to her left, and a quick grin for the camera that she aimed at herself, Clark tries to capture the plasma lights outside the windows.
Altman said the rest of the tape, which typically would have been running through landing, is thought to have been destroyed in the accident. Altman said the tape is the only one with video that has been recovered from the wreckage so far.
The astronauts are just beginning to feel the tug of gravity as the tape ends.
"Let go of the card and it falls," comments McCool.
Adds Husband, "We're at 1/100th of a G (one-hundredth the normal pull of gravity)."
McCool's attention returns to the light show outside the orbiter. "This is amazing. It's really getting bright out there," he said.
"Yup," Husband replied. "You definitely don't want to be outside now."
Investigators looking into what caused the shuttle to break up over Texas believe a breach in the shuttle's left wing allowed some of the hot plasma that so fascinated the crew into the structure.
The board late Thursday released an image from a recovered piece of the left wing that shows extensive melting, though experts have not yet determined if the damage came before or after the shuttle's breakup.