First challenge for Challenger team: saving a satellite

For space-shuttle design expert Norman H. Chaffee, having orbiters Columbia and Challenger fully operational, with two more in the works, means that ''we have a very flexible and cost-effective satellite-delivery system. . . . Now the challenge is to make our system commercial.''

The difficulty of turning the $15 billion Space Transportation System (STS) into an air-freight-style commercial operation showed up clearly Tuesday.

Challenger's liftoff from Florida's Kennedy Space Center was flawless, and America's second shuttle soared into its 176-mile-high orbit on its maiden flight with textbook precision. After a vehicle check that showed up a few minor equipment problems, the orbiter's four-man crew ended its long day by catapulting a 4,668-pound communications satellite into space toward an intended 22,300-mile stable Earth orbit.

But after the smooth separation from Challenger, a malfunction in the satellite's independent rocket system sent the giant Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) tumbling apparently out of control.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and US Air Force officials spent a frantic Tuesday morning trying to identify the malfunction and devise corrective action.

Then by midmorning, the space-shuttle experts who had gone without sleep for up to 36 hours had good news. Robert Aller, NASA's director for the 16-ton Inertial Upper Stage (IUS) rocket system that malfunctioned, reported that after a three-hour loss of contact with TDRS, ''we determined that the vehicle had stabilized itself.''

The fact that TDRS's sophisticated on-board computers were able to correct a serious situation without assistance from the ground, he added, confirms the system's tremendous capabilities.

Mr. Aller acknowledged that ''we were, of course, concerned that we might lose the (TDRS) spacecraft.'' But by the time of the briefing, at 10:10 a.m. Houston time, NASA and Air Force officials confirmed that all TDRS functions were operating perfectly, with the satellite's array of solar panels and antennas fully deployed. The only abnormal aspect was that the satellite was in a lower orbit than planned.

Aller explained that NASA's first of three TDRS satellites, designed to improve communications with orbiting shuttles and satellites, ''has performed excellently.'' He predicted that spare fuel aboard TDRS should make it possible to move the satellite near or into its proper orbit.

Despite initial concern that a deployment failure would discourage commercial customers, the correction of the TDRS malfunction instead may help convince customers that the shuttle delivery system works well enough to self-correct problems that arise in space.

NASA flight director Randy Stone also had good news to report after turning over the battery of computers at Houston's mission control to the next shift of controllers: ''Challenger is operating nearly flawlessly.'' Everything has been running so smoothly aboard Challenger, he said, that some crew tasks have been carried out ahead of schedule.

After his 21 years of working with the space program, Mr. Chaffee, deputy chief of NASA's propulsion and power division, says he isn't surprised by the shuttle program's successes.

But as space flight becomes routine, he explains, ''those of us who work directly with the space program hope that the public will not lose the sense of national prestige, of pride in what we are accomplishing as a country, of adventurousness.''

With two shuttle vehicles operational, Chaffee says, the next goal must be to ''operate more efficiently, by cutting down the shuttle's turnaround time between flights and achieving a cost-competitive airline-type of operation.''

As part of improving the usefulness of the shuttle program, Chaffee's 140 -member staff is working in a variety of areas. One current goal is to develop new high-power batteries the size of a normal flashlight battery. At the same time, his division is helping to develop huge new systems to put a permanent space station into orbit.

Developing new space systems is costly, says Chaffee, because ''we always assume the worse series of events.'' But he says the result - as shown by five successful Columbia flights and a successful recovery from the TDRS problems on Challenger's first flight - is that the space-shuttle system is ''outperforming our expectations.''

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.