Who does not thrill to a significant new advance in manned space flight? The world had become somewhat blase about men in space, once the initial challenge of moving out of Earth's atmosphere had been conquered. Further manned probes seemed almost routine. But when the Columbia shuttle blasted off -- its many lauch frustrations behind --suddenly we were awake again to the awe of it all. "What a view!" exclaimed one of the two astronauts in the early moments -- reminding the listening world again that man is not earthbound. His horizons are unlimited, his possibilities boundless. That is the wondrous message of each new step taken outward toward the universe.
This flight is more than routine. Mankind is in effect launched on a new era of utilitarian work in space. It is a development comparable to the first aircraft built for commercial air travel in the 1930s. The reusable shuttle not only will transport cargos back and forth between Earth orbit and the ground. It will be able to build space facilities, repair spacecraft, conduct rescue missions, collect data from satellites, and the inspect orbiting craft.It will allow for the development of new materials and products in space.
In future we can expect to learn even more about Earth and the cosmos. When Spacelab is aboard -- it now is being built in Europe and scheduled for a flight in mid-1983 -- astronauts will be conducting a wide variety of biological, medical, physical, and astrophysical experiments in weightless conditions. Still another payload, NASA's Space Telescope, which is expected to be circling by mid-1985, will enlarge by several hundred times the volume of the universe that can be viewed from the ground. Future shuttle missions will also place in orbit various payloads that used to be launched by disposable rockets, such as weather-observations facilities.
Columbia, in short, marks a milestone bound to revive public interest in space travel --
Watching the latest American space exploit keenly, perhaps apprehensively, is of course the Soviet Union. It was precisely 20 years ago -- April 12, 1961 -- that the Russians startled the world by lofting a man into outerspace for the first time. The remarkable flight of Yuri Gagarin woke up a sleepy America and the space race was on. Today, however, for all the prowess and brilliance of the American performance on the moon, the Russians remain the leader in manned space flight -- a fact many Western scientists hope will be turned around by presidential and public enthusiasm for the Columbia mission.
The Russian concern naturally relates to the military applications for the US orbital freighter. The US Department of Defense is scheduled to occupy a third of the shuttle missions through 1985. For some Americans the Columbia's defense purposes seem to take the bloom off its flight. Yet they might ponder that the Soviet Union is fast developing a military capability in space with its so-called "killer satellites" and that the United States must therefore be on guard not to let command of space fall to the Russians by default.
At this moment of high excitement it may seem solemn to raise the topic. But Columbia, apart from its tremendous tribute to man's ingenuity, imagination, and curiosity, is also a reminder not to let technological progress outstrip mankind's progress in the political and moral fields. Surely the great challenge for the future is not to compete in space militarily -- a race of awesome implications for life on Earth -- but to find ways of resolving or at least containing those human differences and conflicts on Earth which would drive mankind into making "Star Wars" a reality. The the race in space will remain a peaceful one. Who knows, perhaps one day it may even become a cooperative one -- human beings racing not against each other but against the common limitations and problems of an earthbound existence.
"What a view!" all humanity could then say.