The mission's primary objective was to retrieve a Japanese satellite called the Space Flyer Unit (SFU), which was launched by Japan's National Space Development Agency (NASDA) on March 18, 1995. Retrieval of the SFU was successfully completed on January 13, 1996.
STS-72 included two life sciences payloads, NIH.R3 and NIH.C5, both collaborations between NASA and the National Institutes of Health. NIH.R3 demonstrated the Animal Enclosure Module (AEM) nursing facility, a modified Animal Enclosure Module System designed to support nursing rats and neonates. Validating the suitability of sending lactating female rats and neonates into space is important because they have not flown in space before and are essential for studying the effects of microgravity on early development.
NIH.C5 investigated the effects of space flight on musculoskeletal development at the cellular level by means of a computerized tissue culture incubator called the Space Tissue Loss Culture Module. The experiments in this payload studied the effects of space flight on muscle and bone cells. Results of this research may lead to development of measures to maintain the strength of muscles and bones during long-duration space voyages and possibly on Earth
Other life sciences experiments performed during the STS-72 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.
The STS-72 mission also deployed and retrieved a NASA science satellite. The Office of Aeronautics and Space Technology Flyer (OAST-Flyer) science satellite was the seventh in a series of missions aboard reusable free-flying Spartan carriers. These carriers provided easy and inexpensive access to Earth orbit via the Space Shuttle for science experiments that required measurements taken in orbit, but away from the Shuttle. Four experiments were flown on the Spartan carrier including the Return Flux Experiment (REFLEX), Global Positioning System Attitude Determination and Control Experiment (GADACS), Solar Exposure to Laser Ordinance Device (SELODE) and the University of Maryland Spartan Packet Radio Experiment (SPRE).
Other experiments flown on board STS-72 included the Shuttle Solar Backscatter Ultraviolet experiment, Shuttle Laser Altimeter Payload, Pool Boiling Experiment, Thermal Energy Storage experiment and multiple Get Away Special (GAS) payloads. GAS payloads are flown in canisters mounted to the sidewall of the Shuttle payload bay or on a cross bay truss structure, are operated by the Shuttle's crew and provide their own battery power. GAS payloads that flew on board STS-72 included the United States Air Force Academy Flexible Beam experiment, Society of Japanese Aerospace Companies Protein Crystal Growth experiment and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory GAS Ballast Can with Sample Return experiment.
Two 6.5-hour spacewalks were performed during STS-72 to test hardware, tools and assembly techniques that will be used for the International Space Station (ISS). The first spacewalk was performed on flight day five by Mission Specialists Leroy Chiao and Dan Berry. The second was performed on flight day seven by Mission Specialists Leroy Chiao and Winston Scott. Both spacewalks were successfully completed with only a minor communications problem.
Space Shuttle Endeavor landed at Kennedy Space Center on January 2, 1996 after a successful nine-day mission.