Columbia delivers

Space Shuttle Columbia has brilliantly exemplified the shuttle program's new motto - ''We deliver.'' Emplacement of two commercial communications satellites in orbit shows that the American Space Transportation System (STS) is ready for business.

Although cancellation of a scheduled space walk because of space suit malfunctions was disappointing, this test was not crucial to the mission's success. There will be other opportunities to try space walking before this becomes an operational necessity on the mission scheduled for January 1984.

Meanwhile, as Columbia retires temporarily for refitting and her sister ship Challenger takes center stage, uncertainties continue to overshadow the US space program.

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It is not at all clear that the STS system will become a commercial, as opposed to a technical, success. In its early stages, fees for launching satellites do not cover the costs. Many potential customers opt for Europe's Ariane rocket. No one can yet judge whether or not the shuttle can successfully compete for this business.

There also is continuing concern over the shuttle's military role. Outside observers, including potential customers, wonder if the open, civilian aspects of the program will be compromised by the secrecy and other special needs of military users. Within the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) itself, there is outright alarm at the extent to which such needs already intrude into the day-to-day operations of the agency.

Finally, there is the larger question of long-range goals. Should the US be preparing for a permanent manned space station, as some NASA officials urge, or will its needs be met indefinitely by the shuttle? And what of NASA itself? Should it become mainly an operator of a space truck or should it concentrate on developing the next generation of space ships or space stations? A few years from now, it might make sense to turn over routine shuttle operations to a commercial contractor or a new operating agency while the military acquires a shuttle or two of its own. It would be unwise to postpone much longer a decision on what the US should do in space.

Meanwhile, Soviet cosmonauts Anatoly Berezovoy and Valentin Lebedev have broken the 185-day space endurance record in their Salyut 7 space station. The Soviet Union is close to maintaining a permanent manned presence in space, if indeed it does not already intend to do so with Salyut 7.

Thus, the continuing success of the STS program is no reason for complacency. Columbia has indeed delivered what it is supposed to deliver. But there is much more to a meaningful space program than that.

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