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US Space Shuttle <i>Columbia</i> Lifts Off Amid Tight Security - 2003-01-16

The U.S. space shuttle Columbia has blasted off on a 16-day scientific research mission with Israel's first astronaut. Security was extremely tight at the Florida launch site.

Six U.S. astronauts and Israeli Air Force pilot Ilan Ramon are finally off the ground on a mission delayed by technical and scheduling problems for nearly two years, a fact noted in the pre-launch farewell from the Kennedy Space Center control room.

"If there is ever a time to use the phrase 'All good things come to people who wait,' this is the one time. For you and your crew, good luck, and Godspeed," said the Launch Control announcer.

As usual for every shuttle launch since September 11, 2001, the U.S. space agency NASA was on high alert for any terrorist threat. NASA security chief David Saleeba says Colonel Ramon's presence only heightened the alert.

"Based on the world climate today, I would be foolish to try to make you believe that the presence of an Israeli astronaut on this flight would not make it a higher profile flight," he said.

The crew went to the launch pad under heavy police escort, while police on horses and helicopters protected the area and dogs sniffed for bombs.

Military aircraft patrolled a 55-kilometer no-fly zone around the space center and ships were barred from sailing offshore until mission controllers were assured no problem forced the shuttle to return.

NASA coordinated the effort with the U.S. Homeland Security Department, which the Bush administration created in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

Aboard the shuttle are nearly 90 experiments in a rare mission not supporting construction of the international space station.

Before launch, Columbia commander Rick Husband told reporters it is the first shuttle flight devoted exclusively to research in three-and-a-half years.

"We will not be going to the space station," he said. "We have got the crew split up into two shifts. We will be working around the clock doing our experiments physical sciences, Earth sciences, life sciences, through the course of our mission."

The U.S. Congress mandated this flight because relatively little research is being conducted on the space station while it is undergoing construction.