Next - a US space station?

Once again a hard-working astronaut team has shown that the US space shuttle can deliver. With India's communications-weather satellite safely launched, another commercial contract has been fulfilled. Now the astronauts are continuing to explore the full capability of the shuttle Challenger - practicing using the manipulator arm with an 8,000-pound dummy payload, testing communications through the TDRS relay satellite, and preparing for the shuttle's first night landing.

Such pioneering space activity seems to be taken for granted now. As with the homesteading which really opened up the US frontier territories, such work-a-day activity seems less dramatic than the exploits of the first explorers.

But the social pioneering which this Challenger team represents is another matter. As the President noted in his call to the astronauts, this mission has given Guy Bluford an opportunity to be a role model - not only for blacks but for all Americans - in one of the most visible cooperative activities of our time. It is indeed a smoothly working team of Americans that is in orbit and not a social experiment. As Astronaut Bluford himself observed, it is a foretaste of what a truly integrated US society can be with each person contributing his or her talents without artificial distinctions of race. Thus we, too, salute America's first black astronaut in orbit.

Meanwhile, although the shuttle missions have largely gone well, the US manned space flight program still has an uncertain future. The shuttle effort continues to suffer from corner-cutting due to earlier funding restrictions. For example, there was not enough money to build an adequate reserve of spare parts. When critical parts have been needed for flight operations, they have been taken from the shuttle assembly line. Now, after taking Spacelab into orbit on the next mission in October, the shuttle Columbia is likely to be grounded for 18 months mainly to act as a source of parts to keep Challenger in service. This tends to confirm the concern of critics who say the shuttle system has so little reserve capacity that any serious mishap, such as loss of an orbiter, would severely cripple its ability to fulfill its commercial obligations.

Then too, the administration has yet to decide whether or not to proceed with a permanently manned space station. The Soviets are well along toward having such a facility. US industrial leaders, in fields which would use such a station , are urging its construction. The National Aeronuatics and Space Administration has endorsed the project as the logical next step in US manned space flight. This is a long lead time item. If such a space station is to be available in the early 1990s, NASA will have to start developing it soon.

The outstanding performance of the shuttle system should not lull the US into complacency about its space capabilities. It could easily find itself being second best to the Soviets, or even the Europeans, in the 1990s unless a strong sense of direction and a challenging new goal, such as a space station, is given to the US effort.

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