Secret shuttle cargo, cryptic messages: a more military NASA?

Inside the Johnson Space Center's mission control room, with its four banks of flight control computer consoles and a wall of giant screens plotting the progress of space shuttle Columbia, all is calm.

Voice and television transmissions linking Columbia with mission control here are low key and businesslike. Mission command, systems operations, and flight dynamics specialists sip soft drinks as they monitor this almost textbook mission.

What tension there is centers on one aspect of the Columbia's mission -- the fact that the shuttle is carrying its first military payload.

For the first time, the mission flight plan released to the press includes large chunks of unlabeled time -- presumably being used by the astronauts for work with the shuttle's package of military experiments.

Critics warn that this portion of the Space Transportation System's fourth mission (STS-4) may signal the transformation of NASA from a civilian agency into one with an increasing military role.

Such concerns aren't limited to NASA personnel. Sen. Harrison Schmitt (R) of New Mexico, the former Apollo astronaut and the only scientist to walk on the moon, has come out strongly against militarizing the space program, as has Wisconsin's Sen. William Proxmire (D).

Rep. Ronnie G. Flippo (D) of Alabama, chairman of the House space science subcommittee, has criticized NASA for ''deemphasizing efforts on civilian space applications and increasing emphasis of military space applications technology.''

Space World magazine, which brought together congressional testimony and information from scientific publications to show the Defense Department's increasing reliance on NASA for carrying military hardware into space, editorializes that under new Reagan administration policies ''NASA may be revitalized and told to build a space station . . . or be absorbed by the US Air Force which may also set up a Space Command . . . or (the) Space Shuttle may be transferred to the Air Force and NASA effectively made a vassal.''

Despite ''no comment'' responses from both NASA and Defense Department officials, it is known that these experiments include testing of the Air Force's 1,800-pound CIRRIS infrared sensor. The device is being developed for spotting and tracking missiles at launch and during flight.

Other equipment such as the ultraviolet HUP and the space sextant are being tested as part of a race with the Soviets to build navigational aids that will make military satellites independent of ground control.

No one here is sure whether mixing military and civilian roles for NASA is producing creative or corrosive tension. But as with all of this flight's scientific experiments -- one of which is to mix oil and water -- everyone is watching closely to see what happens.

One concern is that the agency may be thrown off course, moving from its space-research role into simply providing a taxi service both for military and commercial customers.

One visible indication of change is the tighter security at mission control. The Department of Defense has always had a grandstand view of mission control room operations from its own ''DOD'' consoles at the rear of the room, just to the right of the mission director's desk. But in STS-4, military personnel are playing a more prominent role, both in directing mission activities and checking credentials of people inside the building. The Defense Department has begun to train its own mission specialists for use on future space flights.

STS-4 communications for the first time include cryptically worded space-to-ground conversations with Paycom (payload communications), at the Air Force's own Satellite Control Facility in Sunnyvale, Calif.

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