Columbia's success marks it as practical space transport system

With only a slight bump of its nose wheel, the spaceship Columbia landed easily and safely Tuesday after an unexpectedly long orbital flight.

''OK, Columbia, welcome home. That was a beautiful job,'' said mission control.

The touchdown on Northrup strip at White Sands, N.M., at 11:05 e.s.t. came 20 hours and 38 minutes late for astronauts Jack R. Lousma and Charles Gordon Fullerton.

When the astronauts were ''waved off'' from making their originally planned reentry Monday, mission controllers emphasized the spacecraft's ability to remain in orbit an extra day or longer. This capability is built into the shuttle concept, and is another aspect of the shuttle's versatility, which will enable it to function as an efficient Space Transportation System (STS), to use its official name.

Decreasing visibility, rough air, and increasing surface winds forced cancellation ofUFquoteAs confidence builds, minor failures will be taken in stride, just like the routine maintenance of an airplane.

the landing Monday, so astronauts Lousma and Fullerton had an unexpected opportunity to demonstrate this reserve capacity. This bonus brought the STS concept one step forward as an operational system.

Eugene Kranz, deputy director for flight operations at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, emphasizes the importance of the shuttle's ability to stay in space longer than originally scheduled. It makes the craft less vulnerable to bad weather at its prime landing sites. This gives mission controllers confidence that, with no risk to the crew or the space craft, they can wait for the weather, Mr. Kranz explains.

Scientists with experiments on plant growth under weightless conditions also gained a bonus. The originally scheduled seven days of the mission were barely enough for effects of weightlessness to show up. Now their plants have had an extra 20 hours in space.

For Columbia, this was the smoothest test flight yet. ''I think the ship has performed beautifully,'' says flight director Harold Draughon. ''The shifts I've been on have been a piece of cake.'' He says that in spite of the loss of several dozen protective tiles in noncritical areas and a number of minor malfunctions.

The only problem that caused serious--albeit momentary--concern was difficulty in closing the payload doors early in the mission. This appears to have been due to low temperatures, which disappeared in about 15 minutes when Columbia was turned so the doors could warm in the sunshine. Noting that Columbia was deliberately subjected to extremes of heating and cooling during this test flight, Mr. Draughon says that the consequences had not been as severe as he had expected during preflight planning. Columbia, he says, just doesn't get as cold when exposed to outer space nor as hot when oriented to catch the sunshine as engineers anticipated.

Columbia doesn't bend as much under thermal stress as might have been anticipated, either. The ship was put into its so-called banana mode. With the equipment bay fully exposed to the sun, Columbia was expected to bend into a slight curve, like a banana. Precise surveys detected only slight bending. This was well within the tolerance of the shuttle design and of the requirements of any scientific equipment it may carry.

With Columbia back on the ground, engineers will begin a thorough check of the craft. They will try to find the reasons for the small failures, such as loss of some TV cameras and a communication channel. Without making light of this, Draughon explains that even fully operational shuttle systems will have to contend with minor malfunctions.

''We do not expect to have a perfect vehicle that will never have a problem, '' he says. That, he explains, is the reason for building redundancy (backups) into the shuttle system. As confidence builds, Draughon says, minor failures will be taken in stride, just like the routine maintenance of an automobile or airplane.

For their part, the scientists who had experiments on the shuttle have had what mission scientist Werner Neupert of Goddard Space Flight Center calls ''an extremely exciting time.'' Except for an equipment failure that crippled an instrument for solar ultraviolet studies, the scientific phase of Columbia's third test flight appears to have been an outstanding success.

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