Houston — With the space shuttle Columbia punching through Florida clouds like a fiery arrow, astronauts Jack R. Lousma and Charles Gordon Fullerton have embarked on the most demanding shuttle mission yet undertaken.
A near-perfect countdown and a smooth launching from Cape Canaveral at 11 a.m. EST, Monday, has placed them in a circular orbit 149 miles high and inclined 38 degrees to the equator.
At this writing, the two men were preparing for seven days of rigorous flight tests. If successfully completed, this test series - the longest yet given the shuttle - will be a major step toward qualification of what the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) calls a Space Transportation System (STS).
While both astronauts appear very much aware of their responsibilities in carrying out this mission, they also seem to realize that they have embarked on a great personal adventure. Spacecraft pilot Fullerton, making his first trip into space, calls it, ''the greatest (adventure) I ever expect to have in my life because just about everything about being on orbit is going to be a new experience.''
Spacecraft commander Lousma, who was on board the Skylab space station from July 28 to Sept. 25 in 1973, has said he looked forward to again seeing his planet from the perspective of space. He says that ''one of the most interesting things (about orbital flight) . . . is to just look out the window and see this beautiful ball go by.''
Says Colonel Fullerton, ''The high point (will be) . . . when we roll to a stop.'' That landing and rollout now are scheduled for approximately 2:27 p.m. EST next Monday on Northrup Landing Strip at White Sands, N.M.
Wet ground at Rogers Dry Lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base in California, which had been the prime landing site for this mission, forced officials to pick Northrup. Equipment needed to service Columbia has been moved to Northrup and put in place. Glen Lunney, shuttle programs manager, says that management officials and the crew are ''very comfortable that's the correct decision.''
Certain considerations that went into that decision point up an important feature of the shuttle test flight program.
Columbia could land at Edwards if it used a concrete runway. Indeed, it could land on such runways at Cape Canaveral and probably will do so beginning with its fourth mission this summer.
However, concrete runways allow little leeway for overrunning. Mr. Lunney explains that NASA would like to have the astronauts land in a crosswind on a dirt area such as Rogers Dry Lake or the Northrup strip, where they won't be concerned with overrunning, before coming in on a more restrictive concrete runway. One of the objectives of this mission is to gain that experience.
By the time they have touched down, though, Lousma and Fullerton will have had seven busy days in orbit, if they complete their full mission. Indeed, were their mission curtailed as was that of Columbia's second test flight last November, they would be even busier. As did their predecessors, they have a minimum mission planned. This would enable them to compact and rearrange their activities to accomplish their prime objectives if they had to return earlier than expected.
Besides putting Columbia itself through its paces, the astronauts have to tend a variety of scientific experiments, communicate with mission controllers, perform housekeeping chores, eat, and rest. They will be moving around a great deal in doing all this in what would seem to most people a very small space divided between two decks. Fortunately, as Lousma has explained, weightlessness makes this considerably easier.
With two successful flights accomplished and a third under way, the entire shuttle team is beginning to gain the experience needed to weld the complex shuttle operations and hardware into an effective transportation system. Lunney says that experience is beginning to be felt in efficiencies that are realized in many places.
However, there still is a long way to go to turn the STS concept into an operational workaday system. It still takes several months to turn around between flights.