Columbia's 16-day mission featured more than 80 experiments ranging from the effects of space travel on astronauts to the possibility of creating a new perfume from outer space.
Spiders, flowers, cancer cells, ants, carpenter bees, fish embryos, silkworms and rats were all on board.
"I hope they can salvage something," said Hideaki Moriyama, a University of Nebraska biochemist who had supplied vials of proteins to the flight in hopes of finding clues to diseases like HIV-AIDS, Huntington's and Alzheimer's.
"It took more than four years to prepare those experiments," Moriyama said.
Mohamed Abid, aerospace engineer from the University of Southern California, had a combustion experiment on board to study how flame balls react in space. During the mission, he saw video of his tiny fireballs ping-ponging around the shuttle's laboratory, a safely isolated area.
Abid said the data — designed to help researchers model combustion in car, airplane and rocket engines — was lost.
In another experiment, shuttle crew members collected samples of their own blood, urine and saliva to detect possible bone loss, kidney stones, muscle loss or weakening of their immune systems.
Students from Syracuse, N.Y., also had a hand in the science on board. They sent ants to find out whether the insects tunnel at a slower rate in microgravity.
Columbia was the first shuttle in three years not headed to the international space station or the Hubble Space Telescope. Many of the scientists had waited years for to put their work into space.
The Israel Space Agency and Tel Aviv University sponsored one such experiment, which involved aiming a pair of cameras at the Mediterranean and Atlantic in search of huge dust plumes that might affect the weather.
Dust originating in the Sahara Desert sometimes drifts across the Atlantic all the way to Florida, and the $2 million experiment was designed to help determine its role in Earth's climate.
Soon after the cameras were positioned, NASA reported receiving remarkable details of the clouds.
Perhaps the most commercially viable experiment on board was sponsored by International Flavors & Fragrances Inc., which sent a miniature red rose plant with six buds and an Asian rice flower with a jasmine scent. Astronauts extracted and preserved essential oils from the flowers so fragrance experts back home could recreate the smell.
The fragrance company flew a different rose aboard space shuttle Discovery in 1998. That trip yielded a new scent incorporated in the perfume Zen, and a body spray called Impulse.