"Now is the time to take longer strides, time for a great new American enterprise, time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on Earth."

Thus did President John F. Kennedy announce Project Apollo on May 25, 1961. It was to be a mighty effort to turn what had for millennia been a symbol of the unattainable --putting men on the moon -- into actual achievement. It aimed to give the nation a new sense of purpose and set it on an open-ended course into a future where humankind would begin to develop frontiers beyond Earth.

Americans perhaps didn't get the message then. Stung by a sense of inferiority in the face of Soviet space achievements and worried by possible military implications, they went along with Project Apollo and gloried briefly in its successes. Yet when the unattainable had been attend and the last lunar lander, the Challenger, lifted off from the Taurus-Littrow valley Dec. 14, 1972, the nation long since had lost interest. There was serious questioning over whether the $24 billion, 1-year enterprise had been worthwhile.

Now, another eight years into the space age and at the beginning of a new manned spaceflight era, the United States still has not grasped President Kennedy's message any more than 15th-century Spaniards caught the full import of what Columbus was doing. The space shuttle Columbia -- the most sophisticated spacecraft ever designed -- waits on its launching pad. And the country remains ambivalent about spending dollars in space when there are so many budgets to balance and problems to solve here on Earth. The basic fact that "out there in space" and "back here on Earth" are one continuous environment in which humanity is expanding its activity seems not yet to have sunken in.

There seems little understanding among lawmakers and the public that studies of the economic return from dollars invested in space research and development show handsome down-to-Earth payoffs. An estimate by the General Accounting Office in 1977, for example, showed a probable 28 percent return each year on the US space investment. And that is the lowest of several estimates.

That is why what many see as the biggest space challenge the United States faces remains what it was when the first Soviet Sputnik startled the country out of its lethargy Oct. 4, 1957 -- what some call a lack of vision and of a clear sense of national purpose.

Be that as it may, a new era is indeed beginning. The reusable space shuttle is more than just an ingenious vehicle to ferry astronauts and material between Earth and various orbits. It is quite literally the doorway to the country's future in space. And, reluctant or not -- indeed, budget cutbacks or not -- the United States must go through that door. The pressure of competition from the Soviets and increasingly from Western Europe and Japan will impel this progress. National necessity will demand it.

This three-part series examines both the challenge and the opportunities that the United States now has before it. Future articles will consider Soviet competition specifically and explore some of the prospects, such as permanent space outposts, that lie not too far ahead for manned space activities.

First there is the promise of the shuttle itself. With it, the United States more effectively can meet the competition. It can cut substantially into the rising cost of sending hardware into orbit -- lowering it by one-half to two-thirds per satellite compared with the cost of launching with throwaway rockets. And, of course, the nation will reenter the increasingly important sphere of manned spaceflight.

Without the shuttle, there would be no American astronauts. Leadership in this field unquestionably would pass to the Soviets, who seem ready to establish a permanent, operational space station in Earth orbit. And it would become increasingly costly to maintain the American capability to launch unmanned satellites as the Europeans and Japanese turned more to their own rockets to launch the communications, specific, and weather satellites which so far they have paid the US to launch for them.

Indeed, the logic and economy of the reusable space shuttle have been clear since theconcept was first proposed formally by a task force under Vice-President Spiro Agnew in 1969. Because of this, the US deliberately has let its ability to launch spacecraft with conventional rockets begin to wither in spite of vexing delays in the shuttle's development.

Although the Reagan administration's proposed budget cuts make it uncertain when new interplanetary missions might be authorized, any such probes would have to be launched from Earth orbit, having been carried there by the shuttle. The United States now has little capability for launching them from the ground. Beginning in the mid-1980s, many scientific and commercial satellites also will have to be placed in orbit by the shuttle. Even the military expects to depend on the shuttle craft. As former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown explained. "We plan to begin the transition of our operational spacecraft to shuttle launch by 1983. Our dependence on the shuttle will become critical."

Thus there is much more riding on the maiden flight of the Columbia space shuttle than there ever was with the earlier manned spaceflight program, except to the extent that it was an essential beginning. The worst consequence of a substantial delay in Project Apollo would have been a sense of national embarrassment. Any further setbacks with the shuttle, already three years behind its original schedule, could seriously affect essential US space activities. No wonder there was a sense of jubilation at Cape Canaveral on Feb. 20 when Columbia's three main engines, each developing 375,000 pounds of thrust (470,000 pounds in space), went through a "perfect" test firing.

Much has been made of the program's delays and cost overruns -- coming in at some $3.6 billion over its original roughly $5 billion budget. it is misleading to focus on these problems without some sense of perspective.

The cost overrun doesn't seem to horrendous when you recall that the National Aeronautics and Space Administratin (NASA) originally estimated it would take $8 billion to develop the shuttle. NASA settled for $5 billion in 1972 when it became apparent that Congress and the Nixon administration, in a cost-conscious mood, would grant no more. Indeed, the $8.8 billion cost to date is only about Also, those delays due to problems with the main engines and the heat-resistant tiles were traceable, partly at least, to cutting corners on testing and research because of low funding.

As Noel Hinners, a former NASA official who now heads of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum puts it: "To take on a technological challenge like the shuttle with penny-pinching as its major goal was just plain stupid. If you are going to break technological ground, you can't design to cost."

In spite of the "penny pinching," the US now has the most ambitious, technically advanced spacecraft yet known ready for orbital flight testing. it is to be joined by three sister craft --spacecraft operational fleet. A fifth orbiter, now planned, may be cut out by the proposed NASA budget trimming.

The 80-ton Columbia is the biggest manned spaceship yet built. it can accommodate two pilots and up to four scientists or other specialist crew members. Comfort is better than in the old Apollo craft, albeit still Spartan.

Gone are the early days of exploration and adventure, although orbital flight in the shuttle undoubtedly will have its challenges. Unlike their 43 US predecessors who manned the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo craft (including Skylab and the joint US-USSR missions), the 80 astronauts now training at Houston aim to be workers carrying out operational tasks, not test pilots and explorers. Some 47 of them will be pilots, while the rest will be mission specialists conducting experiments and operating equipment.

Among the 80 are several Europeans. Three blacks and one Hispanic represent US minorities. There are eight women, and Anna and William Fisher represent the first husband and wife astronaut pair. The motto for the new American spaceflight era could well be that of the sign over Dr. Anna Fisher's Houston desk:

"The best man for the job may be a woman."

The Space Transportation System (STS), to use the shuttle's official name, was originally conceived to be a completely reusable package. Even the booster system to help it reach orbit was to have been recoverable. But cost-cutting forced a compromise. The main fuel tank, which holds the 1.3 million pounds of liquid oxygen and 224,000 pounds of liquid hydrogen needed by the three main shuttle engines for the boost phase, is expendable. It will be jettisoned, after the main engines burn for eight minutes, at an altitude of about 59 miles and will be destroyed in the atmosphere, with only small pieces falling back into the Indian Ocean.

However, the two strap-on solid rockets, whose 5.8 million pounds of thrust will help the 2.7 million-pound STS assembly lift off, will burn out after two minutes. Jettisoned at a height of about 31 miles, they will parachute into the Atlantic to be recovered by ship and reused.

Once free of the main fuel tank, the shuttle will use smaller auxiliary maneuvering engines to enter its orbit, maneuver, and finally reenter the atmosphere. All of its activity, including the crucial glide back to the landing strip on Earth, will be under computer control. The system is too complicated, and there is too much going on at any one time, for human pilots to fly the ship, although they monitor what's happening and deal with emergencies.

There are five computers -- four for operations, one for backup. All four must agree for an operation to be implemented. If one disagrees with the other three, it is turned off. If there then is a two-to-one disagreement, again the dissenter is shut off. If there is disagreement among the remaining two, the backup computer cuts in. As Astronaut Donald K. Slayton put it: "It decides. It can't be wrong." The flip side of that comment is that total loss of computer control would mean loss of spacecraft control.

Once in orbit, the shuttle will be a versatile work platform. Its cargo bay can hold up to 65,00 pounds. One use may be Spacelab -- a capsule where the crew can work and control instruments that are exposed directly to space. This is a contribution of the European Space Agency to the shuttle missions.

Sometimes the cargo will be satellites to be placed in orbit by the shuttle's maneuverable arm. This may be a permanent working orbit. Or it may be a place to park an unmanned spacecraft that later will be sent to a higher orbit or on an interplanetary mission by an auxiliary rocket system.

Still other missions will involve recovering satellites from orbit, bringing them back to Earth for repair, or refurbishing them in space. Referring to this capacity to repair satellites in orbit, NASA Associate Administrator Glynn S. Lunney has said, with forgivable hyperbole, "The shuttle will be like an orbiting Cape Canaveral."

Thus the United States has built itself a powerful and versatile space transportation system that promises to open a new phase for both manned and unmanned space activities. Its potential can only be partially glimpsed now. Nevertheless, and in spite of the disappointing delays, the shuttles are almost fully booked for the first 47 flights through 1986.

It may be prophetic that Columbia commander John W. Young, together with Astronaut Robert L. Crippen, will take the first shuttle on its maiden test flight -- 36 times around the Earth. John Young was on the moon (as Appollo 16 commander) when the House of Representatives authorized the $5.15 billion President Richard Nixon had requested for the shuttle program. Upon hearing the news, Young jumped up and down, saluted the flag, and proclaimed: "The country needs that shuttle mighty bad."

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