Once again the crew of the shuttle Columbia is proving that the exhilarating drama of space is not just to be found at the Saturday matinee. But amidst all the absorbing press accounts out of Cape Canaveral these days about tiles, insulation hoses, missing rocket boosters, etc., one wonders if the American public has fully considered the implications of merging the civilian space program with military research and satellite launches in the shuttle enterprise.
This is part of the larger issue of NASA's future. Will it become mainly a ''bus company'' providing space transportation for the Department of Defense and civilian commercial users? Administrator James Beggs would like to get rid of shuttle operations and move on to the next space challenge - developing a manned space station.
Surely, the US needs to be abreast of the latest in military space technology - an area that the Soviet Union has pursued with equal vigor. But at the same time, the long-planned transformation of the civilian NASA program into a hybrid civilian-military venture is viewed with proper concern even by such stalwart supporters of space exploration as former astronaut - and Republican senator - Harrison Schmitt. For not only is the Pentagon now commanding a significant share of future space shuttle operations at the expense of civilian space research and development, but that very level of activity is intensifying a militarization of space that could extend the international crises and disputes of earth out into the vastness of the universe itself.
The ''quasi-militarization'' of the shuttle involves the following:
* Close to half of the shuttle flights planned through 1984 are expected to be military related.
* Security has been tightened at ''mission control'' in Houston, with a more evident Pentagon presence.
The 1967 ''outer space treaty'' agreed to by the US and the Soviet Union, among other signatories, outlaws military installations and nuclear weapons in space. That treaty does not halt the use of reconnaissance satellites, nor testing regarding satellites, lasers, etc., as is believed to be now underway aboard the Columbia. Still, the pell-mell testing of sophisticated military-space systems by the US and the Soviets during recent years can only be worrisome in the sense that such activity would seem to fly in the face of the spirit, if not the letter, of the 1967 agreement. Add to such concerns the fact that a joint American-Soviet 1967 agreement on space exploration and cooperation expired last month, and the need to ensure the demilitarization of space becomes even more acute.
The Reagan administration has given a high priority to the use of space for defense purposes. A defense guidance plan, recently approved by Defense Secretary Weinberger states: ''United States forces should exploit opportunities through the use of space for increasing deterrence at all levels of conflict.''
Such a priority may in fact be essential to US defense needs. Congress should thoroughly probe whether that is the case.
At the same time, lawmakers should forthrightly examine whether it is in the nation's best interest to let NASA become heavily linked to, or, as now appears to be occurring, gradually dependent on, the US military establishment.