Houston — "What a way to come to California!" Astronaut Robert Crippen's enthusiastic voice crackled over the mission control communications link, as a small, white speck on TV screens around the world grew to a delta shape in the immense blue of the desert sky.
As exchanges between the Columbia's crew and mission controllers continued -- punctuated by statements like "Columbia, you're right on the money!" -- the shuttle continued its approach, using US Interstate 5 as a guide to its final destination. Small T-38 chase planes played tag with the 77.5-ton orbiter as it made a sweeping turn over Rogers Lake at Edwards Air Force Base, heading for its final approach.
Controllers began calling out the shuttle's altitude as it made its first-chance, last-chance descent. Then, two days, six hours, 20 minutes, and 52 seconds after it erupted from Cape Canaveral, the space shuttle Columbia bearing astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen kicked up the buff-colored dust from the dry lake bed in a letter-perfect landing.
This flawless ending to a nearly flawless mission has opened a new chapter in the United States' unfinished textbook on space travel. The mission accomplished virtually every objective set for the radically new-styled spacecraft on its maiden flight. Its ultimate aim of making space part of man's domain, to be used and exploited on a routine basis, has been shown to be technically possible.
But despite their euphoria over the just-completed flight, analysts say that quite apart from its technical aspects, the US shuttle program still lacks a well-definied overall purpose of how to best serve the broadest interests of American society.
"The United States needs to articulate a new purpose in space, which we haven't had for some time. The shuttle is the basic technology that can underpin this new purpose," says Sen. Harrison Schmidt (R) of New Mexico.
Space, through satellite communication, keeps people and computers talking to each other. Other types of satellites provide military surveillance and navigational aid.
On the horizon, experts see greater exploitation of solar energy in space to conserve declining Earth-based resources. New metal alloys, pharmaceuticals, and other materials may blossom in the vaccuum and weightlessness of space.
But making sure the shuttle serves all these needs will not happen automatically, most analysts agree.
"We must now decide what uses we want the shuttle to serve," says Arthur Dula , a Houston aerospace attorney and chairman-elect of the American Bar Association section on science and technology.
In the wake of the successful Columbia mission, Mr. Dula anticipates a growing queue of civilian and military users all jostling for too little space in the planned fleet offour shuttle orbiters.
To cope with this demand, many analysts say the Reagan administration must, within a year or so, make a major decision to expand the shuttle fleet. Mr. Reagan's posture on the program so far is noncommittal. His 1982 budget proposes funds for the four shuttle vehicles already planned, but development of a fifth orbiter was not given the green light.
Some also see the need to begin development of a second-generation shuttle -- perhaps unmanned, that like the Columbia would be resuable.
The alternative to increasing the shuttle fleet would be sidelining some applications that, though now considered marginal, may have great promise.
Indeed, the private use of space for development of new materials, metal alloys, pharmaceuticals, and energy stations is considered most in jeopardy. These kinds of uses for the shuttle are the most speculative, and private companies so far have been reluctant to commit substantial amounts of money to explore these potential applications.
Mr. Dula thinks tax credits for businesses that invest in research and development in space are necessary to spur private use of space. At the same time, he feels shuttle capacity should be expanded with more vehicles to ensure that enough payload capacity is available in the late 1980s, when he expects serious investment in space industrialization.
The greatest commercial use of the shuttle is seen for conventional communications satellites. Two years ago, this industry expected the shuttle to meet all its launch requirements in the 1984-85 period. Today, "the four shuttles will clearly not meet US commercial space demands," says John Newbauer of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
The strongest concern voiced by would-be shuttle users is that the Pentagon eventually will dominate use of the vehicle. So far, the Department of Defense has booked slightly less than one-third of the cargo space on shuttle flights through 1986. But defense uses of the shuttle have priority.
Thomas Karas of the Federation of American Scientists is concerned not only that military uses might dominate the shuttle, but also that "space will become the site of a new arms race between the US and the Russians."
The US Air Force is enthused about the shuttle and has been an important source of support in getting the program funded since its initial authorization in 1972. The reuseable shuttle will make it cheaper for the military to maintain its surveillance capabilities in space. It also opens the door to potential weapons development, although a Pentagon spokesman said the shuttle is not now viewed as a vehicle for expanding the role of the military in space, but as a means of keeping a steady presence at a reduced cost.
Former astronaut Schimdt likes the fact that the shuttle gives the US new military options in space to offset the "Soviet's clear will and purpose of becoming the dominant force in space." But he also sees a need for a broad new US space policy to avoid some users of the shuttle crowding out others.