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Tests go on for critters, astronauts

Columbia and its crew returned to Earth on Sunday, ending two weeks of lab work that advanced brain research despite unexpected animal casualties. But the experiments were far from over.

Within an hour, the shuttle crew was hustled off for medical tests that were expected to go on for days. On doctors' orders, six of the seven astronauts left on stretchers.

NASA also rushed to unload the animals so scientists could begin dissecting the few dozen surviving baby rats, as well as the nearly 2,000 fish, snails, crickets and older rodents that flew. Most of the young rats died in orbit.

It was a race against gravity: The sooner the astronauts and animals could be examined, the greater the likelihood of observing space-induced changes in the nervous system.

To everyone's relief, Columbia landed right on time at the Kennedy Space Center, where about 200 researchers waited with scalpels to dissect the animals.

Mission Control congratulated the astronauts for "a historic mission that elevated neuroscience research to record heights."

Among the space firsts achieved during the 16-day Neurolab flight: first direct nerve recordings, first joint recording of sleep and breathing, first embalming of animals, and first surgery on animals meant to survive.

One scientist hoped to get back more animals than he sent up. Michael Wiederhold, a researcher at the University of Texas, launched 60 adult snails. The last time he flew snails in space, "they just went to town" and yielded 500 offspring. Because this mission was longer, he was hoping for 700. Reproduction seems to be a snap for snails in space, he said, because there's little in the shuttle aquarium for them to run into and grab onto, except one another.