Mission control Houston has celebrated a shower of ''firsts'' with space shuttle Columbia's first four-member crew.
For the Space Transportation System's fifth orbital mission (STS-5), the major task was to go ''operational'' by launching two commercial satellites. The Nov. 11 and 12 launches were flawless. After the second satellite headed off smoothly for its 22,300-mile orbit, mission specialist Joseph P. Allen reported proudly, ''OK Houston, this is Columbia, we are two for two, we deliver.''
This proof that the National Aeronautic and Space Administration's manned space-shuttle system has the capability to place commercial satellites in orbit with pinpoint positioning and timing gives the US a major lead in the international race to open the frontier of space to commercial operations. And other nations, doubtless, are taking notes.
The next test of Columbia's abilities - a walk in space - was postponed Sunday. Astronauts William B. Lenoir and Joseph P. Allen were scheduled to take the first STS space walk in the vacuum of the open payload bay Monday morning.
Soviet, European, and Japanese space experts all have their own plans for space. The Soviets in particular may be poised for a dramatic leap forward. Two cosmonauts set a new space endurance record Sunday on their 185th day aboard their Salyut-7 space station. Future STS missions soon could be watched from the portholes of a massive 12-man Soviet space station. The Soviets are reported to be nearly ready to unveil a rocket capable of lifting larger loads then ever before.
But Columbia's fifth flight could prod other countries into rethinking decisions to invest in one-shot rockets rather than the reusable space-plane concept. If international agreement develops on the STS system's superiority, others will need to make major changes to catch up with the American program.
US space experts say that the greatest achievement of the STS program - its technological virtuosity - is going unnoticed.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology aeronautics professor Eugene Covert says that putting the shuttle into service was ''a very ambitious undertaking . . . far more difficult and far more demanding than the Apollo program.''
Dr. Covert says it takes an engineer to ''appreciate the level of sophistication'' required to make the rapid advances which have resulted in the shuttle's compact, light-weight, and immensely powerful engines.
Jerome Pearson, an aerospace engineer working at the Air Force Flight Dynamics Laboratory at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, is equally enthusiastic about the STS program. One indication of the shuttle's success, he says, is that now ''the Soviet Union is working on a shuttle.''
Mr. Pearson says that NASA's shuttle program has suffered from 15 years of budget cutbacks which have threatened the overall efficiency of the system.
Pearson argues that the shuttle's ''tremendous cargo-carrying capacity'' and ability to ''fly every couple of weeks'' after only minor servicing means it is likely to be the major delivery system for putting commercial satellites in orbit. The bottom line, he says, is that ''the shuttle is the only area where our space program is ahead of the Soviets.''
Along with other shuttle proponents, Pearson hopes shelved plans for a fifth shuttle orbiter will be refunded.Pearson and NASA officials insist that a fifth space plane is needed to ferry components and crews to a permanent space station , which in turn will be needed to take advantage of the commercial and military opportunities of space.