"We're having a great time and starting to get things squared away where we can move around and really get settled in," commander Rick Husband said one day into the 16-day flight.
CBS News Space Consultant Bill Harwood reports the Columbia astronauts are plowing through a busy day of science today, getting into the meat of their research agenda after activating experiments in the shuttle's Spacehab research module and outside in the ship's cargo bay.
The astronauts turned on a pair of Israeli cameras to measure desert dust in the atmosphere over the Mediterranean and Atlantic. Tel Aviv University scientists are interested in learning how migrating plumes of dust affect climate.
"All the best and regards to Israel," Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli in space, called down. "We just passed over Jerusalem."
Besides eight Australian "astrospiders" — garden orb weavers known for their perfect and well-kept webs — Columbia is carrying ants, carpenter bees, fish embryos, silkworms, mealworms and rats. All were reported in good shape.
Also along for the ride: an American hybrid miniature rose and Asian rice flower, flax roots, wildflower and tomato seeds, bread for a mold study, crystals, bacteria, fungi and human prostate cancer cells.
Almost all of the animals are part of student experiments, as are the seeds and bread.
The flowers, on the other hand, could blossom into big business.
International Flavors & Fragrances Inc. wants to better understand how light, water and nutrients — and a lack of gravity — determine a flower's fragrance and how flowers interact with each other. Video beamed down from Columbia's mini-greenhouse on Friday showed the red rosebuds still closed.
During John Glenn's shuttle flight in 1998, a miniature rose was grown in orbit for the first time and IFF scientists were able to verify that space altered the fragrance. The space scent ended up in a perfume called Zen and a body spray called Impulse.
Columbia also is equipped with a small sealed chamber for igniting fires, an ozone monitor and refrigerators and freezers for preserving scientific samples, including blood, urine and spit collected by some of the astronauts for medical tests.
"One of the less glamorous aspects of spaceflight," NASA mission scientist John Charles said with a smile.
"There are quite a few critters on board, many of them from student-sponsored experiments," said Harwood. "There are silkworms on board, carpenter bees from Europe, there's an ant colony on this flight, believe it or not, from my high school in New York, pretty much just studying the effects of weightlessness on animal behavior and development. It's pretty interesting stuff."
Altogether, more than 80 experiments from around the world are planned.
Columbia is due back at Kennedy Space Center on Feb. 1.
CBS News Space Consultant William Harwood has covered America's space program full time for more than 15 years, focusing on space shuttle operations, planetary exploration and astronomy. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood provides up-to-the-minute space reports for CBS News and regularly contributes to Spaceflight Now and The Washington Post.