Johnson Space Center, Houston — The smoothest shuttle countdown yet, and a perfect launch. As the space shuttle Columbia rose majestically from Pad 39A at Cape Canaveral, Fla., to its 135-nautical-mile, 57-degree orbit yesterday, it carried with it the fruits of the largest cooperative space effort ever undertaken between the United States and Western Europe.
The European Space Agency's 16-ton, billion-dollar Spacelab is expected to usher in a new era of space research, providing the opportunity for what James C. Harrington, director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Spacelab division, calls ''an entirely new approach to doing science in space.''
The Spacelab is good for some 50 flights, and about half of the experiments on this mission are designed to be flown again.
The Columbia's six-man crew is the largest yet lofted by NASA. And in keeping with the ambitious schedule of more than 70 scientific experiments, plus verification of how well Spacelab measures up to its engineering specifications, the crew has been divided into two shifts for 24-hour-a-day operation.
The so-called red shift, which will be on duty from roughly 02:30 to 14:30 Greenwich Mean Time, is made up of mission commander John W. Young, mission specialist Robert A.R. Parker, and payload specialist Ulf Merbold. The blue shift will be staffed by pilot Brewster H. Shaw Jr., mission specialist Owen K. Garriott, and payload specialist Byron K. Lichtenberg.
Dr. Merbold, a physicist with the Max Planck Institute for Metals Research in Stuttgart, West Germany, and Dr. Lichtenberg, a biomedical engineer from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, represent a new type of crew member: They are flying by virtue of their scientific expertise. Unlike the mission specialists, pilot, and commander, the payload specialists are not trained as astronauts. Their sole purpose is to run the experiments aboard Spacelab.
But the hopes of more than just scientists ride on the success of this mission.
NASA administrator James M. Beggs says that STS-9/Spacelab represents ''the largest international cooperative space project in history. . . . We hope this mission will open the door to further cooperation with our European friends as we continue to set our sights on a bold vision of mankind's future in space.''
That bold vision undoubtedly includes a manned space station. Later this week , Mr. Beggs is expected to meet with President Reagan to discuss NASA's plans for such a project.
With the experience gained during 10 years of Spacelab development and construction, the West Europeans are eager to participate in such a venture.
''There is in Europe great interest in continuing to cooperate with the United States and NASA in major manned spaceflight systems,'' says Eric Quisgaard, director-general of the 11-nation European Space Agency. ''We are therefore eagerly awaiting what will come out of the discussions that are taking place in this country (the US) on this matter. And I believe that Europe will be prepared to participate.''
Regarding a manned space station, he says, ''It's not a matter of whether it will come, but when.''
But for now, the emphasis is on this flight and the scientific experiments that will be conducted. Cut through the technology incorporated into Spacelab and its support systems, and it becomes clear that one of the crucial selling points for the orbiting lab is control - the unprecedented degree of control over orbiting experiments that the Spacelab system gives to space scientists.
''That's very definitely the case, for many, many different reasons,'' says Dr. Charles R. Chappel, Spacelab 1 mission scientist.
''The capability that the shuttle has to carry significant equipment in size and in power, the freedom that the scientists themselves have to interact with the science crews, the fact that we have a science crew on board specifically chosen by the investigators based on their expertise in the science we're doing - all of those things indeed do make it an unprecedented opportunity for the scientists to carry out space science in a manned spaceflight mission.''
In effect, he says, the orbiting lab and its occupants become a ''direct extension of scientists on the ground.''
During the first 24 hours of the mission, the scientists will have begun to exercise that control. They were scheduled to begin some of the plasma physics, atmospherical physics, earth observation, materials science, and life-science experiments.
Each of the mission specialists and payload specialists also will serve as subjects for the life-sciences experiments. A major goal of these experiments is to determine more clearly how well humans adapt to weightlessness.
In addition, much of the first 72 hours will be given to conducting verification tests on Spacelab.