Columbia was a white butterfly bolted to a bullet.

It was more robust than any other spacecraft ever built, more fragile than anyone dared acknowledge.

It was a daring departure from all that preceded it.

Columbia was the world's first reusable spaceship and the first to take flight on wings. It was the first to be sheathed in a reusable thermal protection system.

No single machine at the dawn of the 21st century was so complex, so consuming of national resources or so emblematic of a nation's vision of itself.

It was America rising.

The shuttle's very presence in orbit was an intimidating measure of the nation's industrial might and engineering prowess.

In so many ways, the shuttle was a machine made from the raw material of the American character.

Columbia embodied calculated risk.

Unlike any other U.S. rocket, its boosters were never tested in an unmanned orbital flight before being used to launch a human crew.

Promoted by NASA as a symbol of spaceflight, the shuttle's distinctive white delta-winged silhouette became a national logo, a trademark as recognizable as the signature swirl of Coca-Cola or the Nike swoosh.

It became a lapel pin and a squeeze toy, a cocktail coaster and a dorm room poster.

Throughout the 20th century, space travel was never far from the public mind, first as science fiction, then as reality.

Some visionaries straddled both realms. Wernher von Braun, the rocket scientist responsible for NASA's first successes, also helped Disneyland design its moon rocket and space station.

NASA gave itself a theme-park gloss. Celebrated in space center museums and agency visitor centers, the achievements of U.S. spaceflight were as flat as a baseball card, as free of blemish as cereal-box art, packaged and marketed like a professional sports franchise.

In the glossy story that the agency presented to the public, there was never a misstep, never a second thought, never a miscalculation. No rockets exploded on the launch pad. No satellites vanished into the void. No astronauts died needlessly.

Unable — or unwilling — to embrace its full history in public, NASA may have numbed its own ability to heed the lessons of its mistakes.

Instead, accident investigators discovered, the agency was fated to repeat them.

By the time of its last flight, Columbia was itself a relic of the past.