- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 18, 2003

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Jan. 18 (UPI) — A shuttle-based space research mission more than three years in the making was off to a smooth start, with Columbia crew members successfully starting up equipment and conducting an ambitious round-the-clock set of experiments expected to last two weeks.

"It's just great to finally be in orbit," flight director Phil Engelauf said Friday.

The mission, which had been postponed several times due to payload changes, shuttle technical problems, and higher priority space station assembly missions, began Thursday with Columbia's launch into orbit. With Israel's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, among the seven-member crew, the flight is attracting an international following.

Ramon and his crewmates are working in split, 12-hour shifts to squeeze in as much science as possible during the shuttle's planned 16-day mission. Among the experiments already under way: growing a tumor tissue sample in an experimental bioreactor. Scientists hope the research will lead to a better understanding of, and possible treatment for, prostate cancer.

Ramon also began working on an Israeli atmospheric study of tiny dust particles that affect weather systems in the Middle East and elsewhere.

For some studies, the astronauts themselves are serving as subjects, providing blood, saliva and urine samples that will be analyzed by doctors seeking to unravel the rapid changes the human body undergoes in the microgravity environment of outer space.

"It's one of the less glamorous aspects of spaceflight," conceded mission scientist John Charles. "(But) one of the more important parts of any investigation such as this is collecting basic specimens in flight."

Also Friday, the crew set up a centrifuge that will be used later in the mission. The device will be used to study physical properties of granular materials, a study with implications for construction.

"We're looking forward to — I can't believe — over two weeks of detailed and highly intensive data collection on a lot of experiments that have been waiting a long time for this chance to fly in space," said Charles.

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