Houston — "We have liftoff." Assuming those words lead to the successful maiden flight of the space shuttle Columbia, the United States will enter a new era of space travel.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) officials see the shuttle, scheduled for launch April 10, as moving the US from a period of space exploration into one of "space exploitation."
The reusable shuttle will turn space into a work zone for developing new materials, products, and technology, as well as learning more about Earth and the universe. It will bring a greater sense of utility to space travel because it offers tremendous economies in cost, based on its ability to glide back to earth for an airstrip landing and be ready for its next mission in 14 days. The space vehicle has an expected life of some 100 missions.
"The shuttle represents more of an assembly-line approach of space travel," notes Clifford E. Charlesworth, deputy director of the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center here. While earlier space vehicles were custom-designed for one flight, the aim of the shuttle is to "standardize" much of the planning and engineering that goes into each mission, he explains.
NASA eventually hopes to have a fleet of five shuttle spacecraft. The price tag for the shuttle program, including two orbiters and the first four test flights, comes to about $10 billion.
Joseph P. Loftus, chief of technical planning at the Johnson Space Center, offers this perspective on the shuttle: "We have explored space and found out enough that we can begin to put some of these things to work. To do this economically we must be able to reliably and routinely go into space, which will lead to all kinds of new goods and services as well as give us capability for a new round of space exploration."
There are also plenty of military applications for the shuttle, including the deployment of surveillance satellites and the possibility of deploying weapons in space. The Department of Defense is slated to occupy about one-third of the shuttle missions through 1985. The cargoes scheduled for those DOD flights are classified.
DOD has priority on shuttle missions, and some analysts have voiced concern that the Pentagon could begin to dominate the use of the shuttle. Some NASA officials also express concern about this. But they say the number of express concern about this. But they say the number of defense-related missions scheduled so far does not signal any crowding out of civilian uses for the shuttle.
In some contrast to the grand potential of the space shuttle. Its maiden flight has been planned conservatively.
"This program has not had as much ground testing as earlier programs, so we're going to be conservative," Charles R. Lewis, flight director of the Johnson Space Center, said recently. Indeed, the shuttle is the first US space vehicle to be manned on its initial flight.
The columbia's coming flight is scheduled to last 54 1/2 hours, orbiting Earth 36 times. But Mr. Lewis says, "We accomplish most all major systems tests in the first day. . . . The second day is gravy."
The plan is to land the Columbia at Edwards Air Force Base in California. But if the shuttle must be brought back sooner than planned, there are four other back-up landing sites available in New Mexico, Hawaii, Spain, and on Okinawa.
When asked what would constitute a successful mission, shuttle pilot Robert L. Crippen said recently, "As far as [commander] John [Young] and I are concerned, if we get up and get down, and the vehicle is in good shape to go back up again, that's a successful mission."
NASA ground officials will be looking for completion of all three phases of the mission -- ascent, orbit, and reentry. Taking the shuttle through all phases of the mission is seen as more important than the overall duration of the flight.
Critical to safe reentry is the operation of some 30,000 silica tiles designed to shield the shuttle and its crew from temperatures as high as 2,500 degrees F. -- generated by friction with the atmosphere as the shuttle hurtles to the Earth. Some tiles popped off during construction of the shuttle, but NASA officials claim the problem has been solved.
Close attention will also be paid to: how well the two solid rocket boosters perform with the orbiter's own main engines during launch; the operation of two smaller engines that propel the shuttle during orbit; the precision of reentry so the shuttle can coast properly to landing; the opening and closing of the payload bay doors during orbit, which is necessary to release heat from inside the vehicle; and the proper functioning of a multi-layered system of computers that operate the shuttle.
With the shuttle launch some three years behind schedule, crew members Crippen and Young have had ample time to train for the mission. Commander Young considers himself "140 percent trained and ready to go." Considering all the testing the shuttle has undergone, Young adds that the vehicle has a higher safety margin than a commercial aircraft.
Still, some untried technology on the shuttle makes it a bold step forward in space travel, according to most analysts. It is the first craft designed to take off like a rocket, maneuver in orbit like a spaceship, and land like an airplane, points out Dr. Harlan J. Smith, astronomer at the University of Texas at Austin.
"As far as I am concerned, it is every bit as challenging as landing on the moon," he said.