Houston — It is like a college campus during final exams. There is great anticipation and a touch of anxiety. That is the mood a visitor encounters here at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center amid final preparations for the maiden launch of the space shuttle. A flight review by NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) officials March 31 is expected to set a firm launch date, now expected sometime in early april.
Will the mission succeed? Will the American public take an interest? Will the shuttle's history of delays and cost overruns be forgotten as the Columbia orbiter roars from its Cape Canaveral, Fla., launching pad?
As control center for the mission, the sprawling space complex here is preoccupied with the technical details and final checks necessary to get the sophisticated spaceship on its way for the 54 1/2-hour test flight.
Yet beneath the busy exterior, scientists, engineers, and astronauts are keenly aware of the risks and rewards the shuttle represents to future US space travel.
On a recent visit to the Florida launch site Vice-President George Bush enthused that the shuttle would "recharge America." His visit seemed a welcome endorsement from the Reagan administration, but many analysts remain concerned about the level of future federal funding for the space program. President Reagan's 1982 budget proposal trimmed some $600 million from the NASA budget suggested by President Carter. Some analysts feel future congressional support could depend on the success of the first shuttle flight.
Also, there is questioning here of whether the importance of the shuttle is fully appreciated. "I'm not sure the public sees that this is much more than a new space program," says Jeffrey A. Hoffman, an astronaut who hopes to fly on future shuttle missions.
Earlier space programs -- Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo --on the achievements of their predecessors, astronaut Hoffman explains.
The shuttle, on the other hand, represents a fundamentally new approach to space travel that, if successful, would provide almost limitless opportunities, he says.
The shuttle is designed as a reusable spacecraft that can provide relatively routine transportation to and from space. It will open the door to more economical use of space in launching and repairing satellites, as well as allow for the development of new materials in space and greater understanding of the universe. The shuttle also will serve many defense-related functions for the country.
"It marks a real watershed in space travel," asserts Dr. Harlan J. Smith, director of the McDonald Observatory at the University of Texas at Austin. He likens the significance of the shuttle to the first aircraft to offer routine commercial air travel in the 1930s, and ventures its impact will be every bit as profound on American society.
However, the shuttle also entails risks. It incorporates a considerable amount of untried technology and will be the first US space vehicle to be manned on its maiden flight.
Two of the most critical systems being tried for the first time include the silica tiles to shield the shuttle from heat up to 2,800 degrees F. on reentering the atmosphere and a multilayered computer system for operating the shuttle.
"If this shuttle flies, it is really going to [excite] the American people," says Dr. R. R. Gilruth, retired director of the Johnson Space Center and now a consultant to the administrator. But he, too, has concerns.
In developing most new aircraft, several prototypes are built for testing simultaneously. Although other shuttles will be built, the Columbia is about to be tested with no available backup vehicle. A mishap or disaster could not only cost lives, but set the program back years, Dr. Gilruth worries.
The stage would seem to be set for a surge of public interest in space travel. The shuttle, already some three years behind its first target launch date, certainly will not catch many Americans by surprise.
"The public will get excited for the first few flights, but it will wear thin later," predicts Clifford E. Charlesworth, deputy director of the Johnson Space Center. If successful, the shuttle will make space travel "so routine that there won't be all that much reason for excitement." he adds.