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Launching

Rats in space commence long-term experiment

January 13, 1996
Web posted at: 7:20 a.m. EST

From Correspondent John Zarrella

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (CNN) -- As it lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center Thursday, the shuttle Endeavour carried not only a crew of six astronauts, but a precious cargo as well: dozens of baby rats. The creatures are part of an experiment to understand how long durations in space affect the mind and body. (408K QuickTime movie)

Rat in cage

The nine-day space ride is a modest precursor to a $70 million project that will conduct neurological experiments beginning 1998. Scientist plan to use the project to explore the effect of outer space on brain and body development.

The "rat astronauts," all between 5 and 15 days old, had to be age-specific because scientists wanted to study critical periods in neurological development. An advantage to using the rats is that they develop much more quickly than humans in certain areas. A rat, for example, develops a nervous system in three weeks that would take years in a human.

Breeding facility

Scientists aren't sure what to expect when the rats return to Earth, but they hope they will provide clues to how the most complex organ in the body develops. "We really don't understand a lot about how the brain develops," said William Heetdeerks of the National Institutes of Health.

Scientists believe neurological development in microgravity will be different than on Earth. "If you don't have the influence of gravity at such and such an age, even when the animal comes back to earth, it will be a space animal and it may never be able to re-adapt its nervous system to earth." Heetdeerks said. (170K AIFF sound or 170K WAV sound)

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