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COLUMBIA SOARS ON MEDICAL QUEST

The shuttle Columbia roared into space Wednesday with seven astronauts and 2,507 jellyfish and rats on an unprecedented quest for answers to the medical mysteries of space travel.

The 100-ton spaceship blasted off with the four men, three women, 2,478 tiny jellyfish and 29 rats at 7:25 a.m. MDT. It rose from the pad on a pillar of flame into a overcast sky, then headed out over the Atlantic Ocean.The twin solid rocket boosters burned for two minutes before falling empty into the Atlantic, where ships waited to pick them up. Columbia continued toward an 184-mile-high orbit on the thrust of three main engines.

It was the third launch attempt for the biomedical research mission, postponed twice during the past two weeks by faulty shuttle parts. Low, dense clouds delayed Wednesday's liftoff nearly 11/2 hours before the clouds lightened enough to permit a safe launch.

A new equipment concern arose Tuesday. Workers noticed a small patch of insulation on Columbia's external fuel tank had loosened, and technicians repaired the section. Tests were conducted through the evening to see whether the glue would be dry in time for liftoff.

Mission managers decided Tuesday night that the bonding would not pose a problem.

The nine-day voyage, commanded by Bryan O'Connor, is the 41st shuttle mission and the first dedicated entirely to medical research. Columbia, NASA's oldest shuttle, has been flying for 10 years.

It also is the first space flight with three women and the first to have such a medically skilled crew - three are physicians and one is a cell biologist.