Columbia's spectacular touchdown on the white California desert floor has lifted America's spirit. There was worry that the missing tiles on the stubby space shuttle might affect its critical hot plunge back through Earth's atmosphere.But the safe, flawless return of astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen gives Americans that exhilarating old-time feeling that they still know how to put it together. They have not lost their technological touch. In its broadest significance, the Columbia exploit seems to say that all that is needed to get the United States moving again -- on the ground as well as in the skies -- is the will, persistence, and hard work.
Now that the US is entering a new phase of space development, the question is what goals and policy it intends to pursue. These are not clear and have not been for many years. The successful flight of the Columbia should help spur public debate on what long-range US objectives in space should be; how much money should be plowed into space programs; what might be done to encourage more joint ventures in order to avoid duplication; and -- not least of all -- how to avoid now, before it is too late, a lethal military race in space.
Is the shuttle itself worth the effort? Even that question is controversial. Harvard expert Richard Garwin argues that the shuttle is a "technical marvel but an economic disaster." Thus, when the shuttle program first got under way the cost of a payload was estimated at $50 a pound; it is now $800 a pound. Others also believe it is more cost-effective and as useful scientifically to use expendable boosters and unmanned craft.
Such arguments have a certain dollar-and-cents appeal. Yet we confess to resisting them. The future costs of manned shuttle flights may indeed be onerous, but we can think of many other programs the government could cut down on (tobacco subsidies? overgenerous veteran benefits? waste in the defense establishment? water projects?) in the interests of progress in space. It is a matter both of vision and practicality. Of vision because humanity stretches itself intellectually and spiritually by pushing outward the bounds of its knowledge and experience, by constantly reaching for the unreachable and setting ever new goals. Of practicality because there will come a time when men and women will want (or may have to) live, work, farm, travel in outer space, and it is none too soon to begin those "environmental impact" studies and on-site experiments.
It would thus be a pity if interest in the shuttle focused largely on its military uses and obscured its primary civilian operation and function. About one third of future shuttle missions will be defense-related and these are important, of course. They also make possible pure scientific research at lower cost. But it is not in the US long-range interest to promote superpower military rivalry in space. As former Defense Secretary Harold Brown notes, both the US and the Soviet Union depend on space for communications, reconnaissance, surveillance, and the like. It is therefore essential for neither side to destroy the other side's satellites. A race for war capability in outer space would simply engender feelings of insecurity on both sides, dangerously destabilize the East-West military balance, and perhaps invite hostilities.
Past discussions with the Soviets on the subject bogged down.That should not, however, preclude a new effort to reach understandings on a whole range of space issues, including the UN-sponsored draft moon treaty which would permit equitable international sharing of benefits derived from lunar resources. In light of Moscow's own experiments with space weapons systems, its loud warnings about the military aspects of the US shuttle ring hollow. But the Russians, no less than the Americans and their Western allies, would benefit by an international agreement banning military arms, including antisatellite weapons, in outer space. Now is the time to probe this possibility anew.
Looking down the road -- or, we should say, out at the heavens -- it is to be hoped, too, that the advanced industrial nations, including the USSR, will more and more join forces for space exploration. As Earth grows smaller with each thrust beyond its boundaries, it becomes foolish for each nation to go it alone. The waste in individual effort and money is enormous. If such cooperation seems visionary at the moment, it is bound to come one day. Until then, the magnificent feat of the Columbia keeps alive the magnificent possibilities of the future.