Severalthousandstrong Crew

The seven astronauts and 2,000 mammalian and aquatic passengers on board Columbia may have been joined, albeit very briefly, by another as the final seconds ticked away before launch: a wayward bat, which had apparently attached itself to the External Tank. ''We did take his body temperature [with an infrared camera],'' said Launch Director Dave King. ''He was 68 degrees [and] the tank surface was 62 degrees, so we've decided he was just trying to cool off. Some have said he may have heard the crickets in Neurolab, [but] it was his choice whether to hang around when we started the engines or not!'' Hopefully, for the bat's sake, he took flight well before Columbia's main engines roared to life! Its sensitive ears would not have survived the acoustic shock.

It was the first time that crickets - more than 1,500 of them, in fact - had flown into space. However, there was no possibility of any chirping from Neurolab: crickets 'sing' by rubbing their wings and those on board Columbia were not yet old enough to have the wings needed to serenade Searfoss' crew. ''If they start to sing, then we have a result; an unexpected one,'' laughed neurobiologist and cricket expert Eberhard Horn of the University of Ulm, near Munich. ''The crickets have an external gravity sensor, so you can see immediately what happens in space with such an animal.'' Some researchers had suspected that these sensors would not develop normally in weightlessness, particularly in the case of the younger crickets. Consequently, almost half of them were 'spun' in a gravity-simulating centrifuge, while the others were exposed to 'ordinary' microgravity. After Columbia's return to Earth, they were frozen and dissected by Horn's team as part of investigations into how their bodies changed in space.

As well as humans, rodents and crickets, Neurolab also carried several hundred snails and fish into orbit, whose gravity-sensing mechanisms are either similar to our own or very simple and easy to analyse. ''Gravity is always present on Earth, so it's been hard to explore its role in development and in controlling movement,'' said Christopher Platt of the National Science Foundation's division of integrative biology and neuroscience. ''Neurolab allows unique tests that will shed light on how gravitational sensors work. These studies may tell us how exposure to lack of gravity may lead to abnormalities in the otolith organs - relevant to long-term spaceflight and to certain kinds of posture and balance problems in people on Earth.'' Furthermore, the results of the aquatic experiments could lead to advances in the development of electrodes as connections to the nervous systems of people with deafness caused by hair-cell damage.

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