Space shuttle Columbia blasts off, carrying a menagerie of organisms for a variety of experiments.
Safely in orbit aboard space shuttle Columbia, seven astronauts and their highflying menagerie today begin scientific tests billed as a preview of the work that could be performed on a permanent space station.
``We're touching virtually all the types of investigations that can be done in a space laboratory,' said mission manager Lanny Upton.Columbia blasted into space precisely on schedule at 12:43 p.m. Friday after a perfect countdown. About eight minutes later, it was in orbit 185 miles above Earth.
The shuttle is carrying a bus-sized, $1 billion Spacelab module that contains 82 science experiments from 13 countries.
Many of the experiments involve living organisms, and the lab houses aquariums teeming with thousands of goldfish, killifish, jellyfish, toad eggs, newts and baby sea urchins. Also aboard are flies and slime mold.
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The crew, including Japan's first female astronaut, Dr. Chiaki Mukai, will investigate how the absence of gravity affects their own bodies, the growth of plants and aquatic animals and the production of high-tech materials.
Scientists say the experiments could yield practical benefits ranging from tougher bulletproof vests to cures for balance problems afflicting the elderly.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration said the mission is a sample of what could be accomplished aboard an international space station.
The $28 billion station survived a crucial vote in Congress last week, although it remains controversial. It has been revised numerous times in response to complaints about its scope and cost.
In recent years, however, NASA has arranged partnerships with 12 other nations, including Russia, and the agency hopes to have the stripped-down orbiting laboratory operating by the year 2001.