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Shuttle Mission Minus Fancy Maneuvers

GET ready for crystal growing, metal melting, magnet testing, and vapor diffusing. No spacewalks. No satellite captures. No Russian cosmonauts. Just five Americans and 12 rats.

After two glamorous flights that won presidential raves and rocketed the space program back into prime-time, NASA gets back to shuttle basics with this week's launch of Columbia, scheduled for liftoff tomorrow morning. ``The best way to think of this is a precursor for a space station,'' says mission commander John Casper. ``So when we [build one] we'll better be able to operate [it].''

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Astronaut Marsha Ivins urges patience. ``What we're doing on this flight may not be as glitzy as it's been on the past two flights and there's no real immediate gratification,'' she says. ``However, we're doing some research that's really important as far as materials development and protein crystal growth. Those two things are long lead-time sorts of experiments.''

Astronaut Pierre Thuot welcomes Columbia's low-key flight. On his last shuttle mission in 1992, he tried for two days to capture the stranded Intelsat satellite. The rescue required three spacewalks and three spacewalkers.

Almost all 11 primary experiments will be controlled from the ground; controllers will send computer commands to operate the science instruments in Columbia's cargo bay. The astronauts will intervene only if there's trouble. The 12 rats aboard will help researchers' attempts to find a drug that prevents bone weakness in space.

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