Scientific objectives for the STS-80 mission included the deployment and retrieval of two free-flying payloads, the Wake Shield Facility (WSF) and the German-built Orbiting and Retrievable Far and Extreme Ultraviolet Spectrograph-Shuttle Pallet Satellite II (ORFEUS-SPAS II). The WSF was designed to create a super vacuum in its wake in which thin film wafers were grown for use in semiconductors and other high-tech electrical components. ORFEUS was designed to study the origin and makeup of stars.
Life sciences payloads on board STS-80 included the National Institutes of Health NIH.R4 and NIH.C6 experiments. NIH.R4 was designed to study blood pressure regulation and function in rats fed either a high or low calcium diet before and during space flight, which will add to the body of knowledge necessary to maintain the health of astronauts during space flight. NIH.C6 (renamed to CCM-A) continued the investigation into how microgravity affects bones at the cellular level. Bone loss experienced by astronauts in orbit is similar to that which occurs in people who undergo prolonged bed rest.
STS-80 was the ninth flight of the Biological Research in a Canister (BRIC) small payloads flight project. BRIC payloads consist of passive experiments contained within a metal canister placed in a middeck locker with foam padding for vibration dampening. Experiments for BRIC-09 were specifically designed to study the effects of genetic expression and microgravity on tomato and tobacco seedlings. Researchers hope these studies will help to improve growth rates and biomass production of plants in space and may enhance crop productivity on Earth. Experiment specimens were exposed to the temperatures, carbon dioxide, oxygen, atmospheric pressure and humidity conditions of the middeck; little to no crew interaction with the payload was required.
Additional life sciences experiments performed during the STS-80 mission were those classified as Detailed Supplementary Objectives (DSOs). A DSO is a NASA-sponsored investigation performed by Space Shuttle crewmembers, who serve as the test subjects. These studies are designed to require minimal crew time, power and stowage. Biomedical DSOs focus on operational concerns, including space motion sickness, cardiovascular deconditioning, muscle loss, changes in coordination and balance strategies, radiation exposure, pharmacokinetics and changes in the body's biochemistry.
Secondary payloads flown on STS-80 included the Space Experiment Module (SEM), a small payloads project that provided increased educational access to space that targeted students from kindergarten through the university level. SEM experiments included the Surface Effects Sample Monitor, which investigated the impact of the space environment on materials and surfaces during different phases of the mission; and the Interstellar Medium Absorption Profile Spectrograph that observed the brightest galactic objects at extremely high resolutions allowing the study of fine structure in interstellar gas lines.
Landing was waived off four times due to poor weather conditions. The Space Shuttle Columbia finally landed at Kennedy Space Center on December 7, 1996, after a successful 17-day mission, the longest mission to date.