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"Columbia' lifts off for 13-day mission

The crew of the space shuttle Columbia was on the job in space today, but back on Earth NASA was still cleaning up litter from the launch.

Scheduled for Thursday, the launch was put off for a day because of high winds. At 8:53 a.m. Friday, Columbia flew smoothly into orbit, apparently problem free.

Clear skies over Florida made the launch visible throughout much of the state. Traffic slowed briefly in the Tampa Bay area as motorists scanned the sky.

But east of the Kennedy Space Center, there was no one to pick up the two 149-foot booster rockets that fell into the Atlantic Ocean a few minutes after liftoff. The two ships and crews that normally retrieve the boosters were back at Cape Canaveral, waiting for seas to calm.

No problem, said NASA's launch director Bob Sieck. The U.S. Coast Guard, Navy and Air Force were helping keep tabs on the reuseable boosters until the recovery ships could get to them today.

The boosters should stay afloat, Sieck said, and radio beacons will make them easy to find. But "we owe it to mariners to watch them," he said, because they present a hazard to navigation.

Meanwhile, the astronauts went right to work.

Columbia holds more engineering and technology experiments than have ever flown on a shuttle, said Jack Levine, director of flight programs for NASA's Office of Advanced Concepts and Technology.

The 11 primary experiments, worth nearly $100-million, range from semiconductor production to metal melting. Nearly all the major experiments will be operated from the ground. The astronauts will occupy themselves with medical tests, a new magnetic grappling system for the shuttle robot arm, and small, snap-together structures that will be shaken to see how the pieces hold up under stress.

If it goes as planned, this 13-day, 23-hour trip will be the shuttle program's second longest.

Columbia, NASA's oldest shuttle, is making its 16th flight and the 61st of the shuttle program. Columbia already holds the record for the longest shuttle excursion _ just an hour longer than this voyage is scheduled for. But the crew is hoping to surpass that with a landing delay. One extra orbit will do it.

Mission commander John H. Casper and pilot Andrew Allen tested new water-cooled underwear during the launch, and pronounced it a big improvement over the old model, which sometimes became uncomfortably hot.

The crew also includes mission specialists Pierre Thuot, Charles D. "Sam" Gemar and Marsha S. Ivins.

Columbia is scheduled for a Kennedy Space Center landing on March 18.

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