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Shuttle 'Ark' Soars Into Space

Brimming with thousands of crickets, snails and other creatures, shuttle Columbia soared into orbit Friday on a two-week mission to explore the mysteries of inner space, the brain.

"It's a little bit like a Cecil B. DeMille production: years in the making, cast of thousands, and it went off like it was supposed to," said NASA's chief veterinarian, Joseph Bielitzki.

The space agency expects the mission to provide the best look yet at how the brain and nervous system adapt and develop in weightlessness.

Columbia vaulted into a clear afternoon sky to the delight of the tens of thousands who jammed the Kennedy Space Center in a postholiday crush. The ship glittered for nearly five minutes as it sped toward the east.

CBS News Space Consultant Bill Harwood says, "It's probably one of the most ambitious pure science missions NASA has ever attempted. They want to know more about how the brain and nervous system work. They will study processes in the absence of gravity. By taking gravity out of the picture, they are hoping to gain insights into how some systems work on a fundamental level. It's a complicated mission."

One day late in taking off, Columbia was outfitted with a new data processor to replace one that failed in the final hours of Thursday's countdown. It also was loaded with a fresh batch of crickets and mice.

As if there weren't enough animals on board--2,052 crickets, snails, fish, rats and mice, to be exact, a bat tried to hitch a ride.

The small, black bat attached itself to the back of the huge external fuel tank late in the countdown, said launch director Dave King. As soon as the booster rockets ignited, the bat let go and tried to fly away. In all likelihood, officials said, the bat became toast.

Four hours after liftoff, the astronauts floated into Columbia's bus-size laboratory and began setting it up for 16 to 17 days of neurological tests. Exams some of them unpleasant will be conducted on the seven-member crew and the animals.

The shuttle is carrying 1,514 crickets, nearly half in the soon-to-hatch egg stage. None is old enough to chirp. Also aboard are 18 pregnant mice, 152 rats, 60 snails and 75 snail eggs, and 233 fish.

"One of the big goals of this mission is exploring inner space, or the innermost workings of the human nervous system," one of Columbia's four medical men, Dr. Dave Williams, said before the flight.

By knowing how the nervous system adjusts to weightlessness, NASA will be in a better position to send astronauts to Mars and establish moon colonies.

The space agency also hopes to solve some of the nagging health problems that afflict astronauts in orbit as well as older people on Earth: insomnia, vertigo, imbalance, reduced blood pressure and weakened immunit.

Twenty-six experiments valued at more than $100 million will be conducted during the mission. Among other things, the astronauts will be spun on a chair, jabbed with needles, covered with electrodes, squeezed into a decompression chamber, and monitored during sleep.

©1998 CBS Worldwide Corp. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report