Officials of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) say the space shuttle will be a commercial success, despite a forecast by the National Research Council that the program could not reach NASA's goal of 24 launches a year by 1988.
''We're absolutely working toward making the shuttle commercially viable,'' said Lt. Gen. James A. Abrahamson, NASA's associate administrator for space flight, after the shuttle Challenger landed Friday.
He said orders for use of the shuttle from private companies have picked up markedly.
''We have a very active marketing effort, and since January we have had 14 satellite reservations,'' he said. ''Thursday, the board of Intelsat voted to use the shuttle in its Intelsat 6 series of satellites,'' and Ford Aerospace has also committed itself to a launch agreement.
''We're looking at it (the shuttle program) to become self-sustaining. But there are some very important things that must be done if it is going to reach the 24-launch goal,'' the general said.
Among those things: construction of a fifth shuttle, now under debate in Congress, and the construction of a refurbishing facility at the Kennedy Space Center for the shuttles' solid rocket boosters. NASA has already issued a request for proposals for building the refurbishing plant, he said, and the money is available for it. NASA also would get a boost if Congress gives it $50 million more for spare parts for the shuttles, he said. That proposal has reached a House-Senate conference committee.
''We would have enough money for all the booster rockets we could use,'' one NASA spokesman said. ''We would be in an extremely healthy position, and spare parts would not be a limiting factor for the shuttle.''
While Challenger was in flight during the Space Transportation System's seventh mission (STS-7), NASA's first shuttle orbiter, Columbia, was being refurbished here. Workers are expected to begin equipping it with a space laboratory next month in preparation for STS-9, now scheduled for a Sept. 30 blast-off.
The shuttle Discovery is expected to be complete this fall, while the fourth shuttle, Atlantis, will be built to begin work in 1984.
STS-8, which will carry the first US black astronaut and is expected to take off and land at night, is scheduled for August. But its launch may be postponed because Challenger was forced to land at Edwards Air Force Base in California rather than at the Kennedy Space Center.
Landing in California will add about eight days to the shuttle's turn-around time, General Abrahamson said, after 300 workers from the Kennedy Space Center left for Edwards to bring Challenger home.
STS-8 will not carry a second tracking and data relay satellite (TDRS) that was scheduled to be put in orbit to help the Spacelab mission in September, a NASA spokesman said.
The first TDRS, deployed by STS-6, failed to enter its proper orbit. However, after 39 maneuvers on commands sent from its ground station at White Sands, N.M. , TDRS-1 is expected to reach its position in geosynchronous orbit 22,330 miles above Earth on Wednesday.
But until engineers can determine why the so-called Inertial Upper Stage (a booster rocket supplied by the Air Force) malfunctioned, NASA won't send up another TDRS. A NASA spokesman said the Spacelab mission shouldn't be hampered by the lack of a second TDRS.
A NASA spokesman said STS-10, which was to carry only an Air Force payload, has been postponed indefinitely because the Air Force has decided not to go through with the flight. The spokeman didn't elaborate.
Abrahamson said he was pleased with Challenger's second mission, despite the California landing. And he praised the performance of Sally Ride, America's first woman astronaut in space.
The decision to divert the landing to Edwards Air Force Base was difficult, he said. It rested on the weather and on NASA's lack of experience in landing on a limited runway.
''If this weren't the first landing, we would have been bolder,'' he said. ''We were concerned about water in the air. We have to study what damage rain will do'' to the heat-resistant tiles that cover much of the spacecraft.