Can US space program lift off with shuttle?

Spring 1981 may not be a bad time after all for the launch of the first US space shuttle. Delays in the launch schedule -- the most recent pushing it back to "no earlier" than April 7 -- have put the shuttle three years behind the timetable envisioned by the program's early planners. while no one likes the delays, sending the space vehicle into orbit this spring could prove opportune, according to a number of analysts.

"The time is excellent, although coincidental," said Sen. Harrison Schmitt (R) of New Mexico in a phone interview. The former astronaut sees the launch as a "perfect opportunity for a new statement of purpose" for the nation's space program by a new Reagan administration. He believes the US space program needs the kind of direction from the White House "we have not had since President Kennedy said we were going to the moon."

A spring launch of the shuttle also could help bolster support for the nation's space program as Congress makes final decisions about the 1982 budget, other analysts say. Many federal programs are expected to be cut, and President Reagan's budget planners reportedly are considering a 10 percent reduction in 1982 funding for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The cuts would eliminate the fifth shuttle NASA has planned to build, and delay delivery of the fourth orbiter.

With the space shuttle Columbia roaring into orbit, "it would give us a lift and bring our supporters out of the woodwork," predicts a spokesman for NASA in Washington.

The Columbia now sits perched on the launch pad in Cape Canaveral, Fla., where it is undergoing a series of "dress rehearsal" tests that will determine if it flies this spring. It would be the first manned US spaceflight since 1975 .

"We've had our problems in the technical areas," concedes Clifford E. Charlesworth, deputy director of the Lyndon B. Jonhson Space Center here in Houston. The latest delay was the result of problems with the bonding material that holds insulation to the shuttle's external fuel tank.

Unlike earlier space vehicles, the shuttle will be launched into orbit and then glide back to Earth for a conventional landing on an airstrip. Given all the new technology required for the nation's first reusable space transportation system, the delays were to be expected, asserts Mr. Charlesworth.

But he, too, is increasingly anxious that the shuttle become airborne this spring. "It's very important that we get the shuttle going," he said, because of all the commitments that have been made for the use of the vehicle.

Eventually, the shuttle will be put to use by the Department of Defense and a number of private interests for a variety of functions, including launching satellites, conducting scientific experiments in space, and more thoroughly identifying Earth's resources. One of the most intriguing projects already planned is the placing in orbit of a large telescope that will be able to explore the universe without peering through Earth's haze.

The shuttle will take four test flights before becoming operations in 1982. Private interests and government agencies have made commitments to use the shuttle through 1986.

NASA began the most critical series of tests Feb. 11. They will include trial runs of nearly every phase of the shuttle mission "except actual liftoff," says a NASA spokesman.

The test lead up to a test firing of the three shuttle engines, scheduled for Feb. 19, which during the actual launch will help two solid rocket boosters carry the shuttle into space. The shuttle engines have been tested separately, but never as a cluster and never while actually on the vehicle. Although the engines will only fire for 20 seconds, that brief test now is believed to be the last major obstacle to launching the Columbia.

However, the unexpected difficulty with the fuel tank insulation has not been resolved and will not receive further attention until after the engine test firing. NASA officials point out.

After the firing of the engines, the mission control center in Houston will conduct a full simulation of the 54-hour shuttle flight. Astronauts Robert L. Crippen and John W. Young will sit inside a mock-up of the real shuttle and perform all the tasks necessary to launch the vehicle and guide it safely back to Earth.

A full simulation conducted last month in Houston proved a success for both the crew and the teams of scientists and engineers, numbering in the hundreds, that provide ground support for the shuttle.

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