Once again, the space shuttle Columbia has thrilled America and many other parts of the world. As her commander Joe Engel said, she has proved herself to be ''a magnificent flying machine.''
Our hats are off to the entire government-industry shuttle team for meeting the challenge of a fuel cell failure which forced curtailment of this second mission. They proved that America has a magnificent spaceflight team that can make the most of the shuttle's capacity to sustain equipment failure and still fulfill its major mission goals.
It now seems obvious that the United States is gaining an impressive space transportation system that can perform major service throughout the rest of this century. At the same time, we realize this is only one aspect of the balanced space program which the country should have and, up to now, has had. Along with putting astronauts into earth orbit to perform useful tests, the larger outreach in continued exploration of our solar system should not be neglected. This provides the knowledge on which the next generation's space achievements will be based, as well as giving us a valuable new perspective on our planet Earth today.
Yet, even as two new Soviet probes are speeding toward the planet Venus, the United States' space science program is being forced into dangerous decline by shortsighted budget cuts. These go beyond fiscal prudence at a time when federal spending must be curtailed. They seem to presage a stifling of US scientific space exploration.
There even is talk within the administration of turning off the Voyager spacecraft before it can give humanity its first close look at the planet Uranus - and of scrapping the Deep Space Tracking Network of ground stations that make communication with distant spacecraft possible.
With great effort, and at great expense, the United States has built up a capacity for scientific space exploration that is as magnificent and as valuable as the manned spaceflight capacity the shuttle represents. To throw this away for short-range budgetary reasons or for lack of vision on the part of some members of President Reagan's administration would be a foolish waste.
We were encouraged that the President expressed his personal interest in the shuttle program by visiting the mission control center at Houston and chatting with the astronauts. We hope he also will take a direct interest in seeing that the United States maintains its full range of space capability in a balanced, as well as a financially prudent way.