Shuttle took first Israeli into space
By Richard Stenger
(CNN) -- The space shuttle Columbia roared into orbit Thursday, carrying the first Israeli astronaut on a rare manned expedition to space dedicated solely to science.
The morning launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida took place under exceptionally tight security, with post-9/11 terrorist concerns heightened by the presence on the crew of Col. Ilan Ramon.
Ramon, a fighter pilot in the Israeli air force, had trained with NASA since 1998 to fly on this mission, which was originally scheduled for 2000.
But shuttle fleet maintenance problems and higher-priority flights to the space station delayed the flight.
"We hope your wait to space was worth it," Charlie Hobaugh with Mission Control radioed to the shuttle after the nearly flawless launch. "And an especially a warm welcome to Ilan, as you join the international community of space flight."
"Thanks a million," shuttle skipper Rick Husband replied.
In 1995, President Bill Clinton announced that an Israeli would fly in the shuttle. Ramon is one of dozens of international astronauts that have joined NASA space crews.
Others have come from Russia, Canada, Mexico, France, Ukraine and Saudi Arabia, which sent a member of the royal family to help deploy an Arab satellite.
The shuttle mission, crammed with more than 80 experiments and 4 tons of research equipment, is the first not to visit the space station or Hubble Space Telescope in almost three years.
In orbit, Ramon and his six crew mates were to break up into two teams to conduct research round-the-clock during the 16-day flight.
The range of research was broad, encompassing biology, medicine, physical sciences and technology. Much of it was conducted in a large, pressurized laboratory in the shuttle's cargo bay.
The experiments involved a menagerie of specimens: cancer cells, fungi, rodents, spiders, bees and silkworms, as well as the astronauts themselves. They will have sensors to measure their physiological changes in orbit.
Scientists hoped to learn how to combat the effects of weightlessness, which over time can suppress immune function, lower bone density and weaken muscles.
The crew was also to grow soybeans and crystals and use a combustion chamber to study inexpensive ways to suppress fires.
Other members of the Columbia team included pilot William McCool and mission specialists David Brown, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla and Michael Anderson.