NASA has confirmed that the next Space Shuttle mission will be launched on 16 April. The date had been threatened by fears that problems, mainly concerning a possible rescheduling of International Space Station (ISS)-related missions, could delay the launch to 28 April.

The Neurolab - the final planned flight of a European-built Spacelab laboratory module - will involve the seven-person crew, including two non-astronaut specialists, in the most invasive investigation yet into the nervous system and behaviour in space.

The 16-day mission will concentrate on four main disciplines. Autonomic nervous system experiments will examine the effects of weightlessness on the regulatory systems in humans and the consequences of adaptation on their return to Earth.

Sensory motor and performance experiments will investigate the effects of adaptation to weightlessness on human perception and motor functions. Normal sleep patterns of the crew before, during and after the Neurolab mission will be evaluated to identify factors which contribute to sleep disturbances.

Vestibular experiments will investigate the fundamental question of how spatial orientation - the inner ear balancing mechanism and the response to seeing objects in unfamiliar positions - are altered when an astronaut floats in weightlessness.

NASA says that it is considering adding new Space Shuttle flights to help researchers make the transition from Spacelab and Space Shuttle Mir missions to the ISS.

The space agency also reports that an autonomous, free flying space platform may co-orbit with the ISS to operate science, Earth observation and microgravity instruments which are unhindered by central operations.

The platform, which would be based on the flight-proven Spartan free flyer that has operated several times on Space Shuttle missions, could be deployed and retrieved by the ISS.

Source: Flight International