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Shuttle takes off on medical mission

NASA successfully launched the space shuttle Columbia on Wednesday, but immediately encountered a problem with loose seals and insulation that could obstruct closing of the payload bay doors. The problem is being studied, said flight director Randy Stone. "But at this point we don't believe it will affect mission safety or duration."

Columbia lifted off at 9:24 a.m. after waiting almost 90 minutes for troublesome low clouds to clear. When the payload bay doors were opened, onboard cameras revealed that some thermal blankets were loose, as was a section of rubber sealing material along one of the cargo bay doors.

Stone said this may not be a problem. But the loose materials could get in the way when the crew closes the payload bay doors at the end of the nine-day mission.

Stone described the seal as "kind of like the weather stripping on your front door," and said it is used to prevent contamination while the shuttle is on the launch pad. The blankets protect the interior of the payload bay from the sun's heat.

The latches used to close the payload bay doors "are very strong," Stone said. "Even if the seal or insulation is in the way, the doors could collapse it and close safely." Nevertheless, potential effects on the mission will be analyzed during the next couple of days, said Stone, who added that the possibility of an astronaut leaving the shuttle to investigate or make repairs is extremely remote.

Making the trip into space with Columbia's astronauts are 29 rats and 2,478 jellyfish. The humans and their companions are all specimens in the most extensive biomedical study conducted yet on the shuttle.

During their mission, the astronauts will be examined and checked and will be the subjects of several tests.

These studies are designed to help scientists better understand how the heart, lungs, kidneys, immune system and metabolism in humans adapt to space travel.

Within two hours of arriving in space, live TV pictures showed the crew _ some still tentative on their space legs _ carrying racks of equipment into the lab, searching for a light switch and setting up a stationary bicycle for cardiovascular studies.

"The activation was hectic. The science going on right now continues to be hectic," said mission operations official Bill Huffstetler late in the day.

The first work day, 18 hours long, was dominated by the determination of the science crew _ three physicians and a cell-biologist _ to contribute frequent blood and urine samples beginning as soon as they could get out of their launch suits.

The samples will be analyzed for information about the body's adaptation to weightlessness. No measurements have ever been taken so early in the transition from gravity to weightlessness.

Extensive research into the effects of weightlessness on the human body is considered essential before people can venture on long-duration space flight to Mars. Scientists say such research will also lead to medical benefits for the earthbound.

The 29 rats will be tested when the craft returns. Scientists will study the rodents' muscle, tissue and bone changes.

Iodine was to be squirted into the water-filled bags containing the juvenile jellyfish. This will cause the creatures to mature.

After the mission, scientists will dissect the gravity-sensing organs in the jellyfish. The organs are similar to the human otolith, which helps maintain balance. These studies may give new insight into why some astronauts have motion sickness in orbit and others do not.

Moments after the successful launch, NASA administrator Richard Truly used the news to mount a defense of the embattled space station Freedom, a project that the House Appropriations Committee this week voted to cancel. He said canceling the space station would devastate the U.S. space program.

A full House vote on the station is set for today.

_ Information from the Associated Press and Washington Post was used in this report.