The space shuttle Challenger, just back from a successful six-day mission, is getting a sprucing up for its next flight in January. Its sister ship Columbia is poised to carry the Spacelab research workshop into orbit Oct. 28. And a third shuttle, Discoverer, will roll out of the factory next month for service in 1984.
It is obvious that the US Space Transportation System has matured this year.
Indeed, the entire US manned space flight program has come a long way since Alan Shepard hopped off the pad in the Mercury 4 capsule 22 years ago. Even a 15 -minute suborbital flight was a thrill in those days. Now, National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials anticipate 11 shuttle flights next year, 16 in 1985 when the fourth shuttle Atlantis joins the fleet, and 24 missions a year by 1987.
With the shuttle system operational, the administration must decide what the US should do next in space. Advocates of a space station include top NASA officials and space industry leaders. They consider a permanent orbital base the next logical phase for US manned space flight. Yet critics in the scientific community and within the White House staff are concerned that a space station program would drain off funds needed to maintain a healthy space science effort and orderly development of the shuttle system itself.
The critics have a point. To shortchange other aspects of the space program simply to begin space station work would perpetuate the poor policy of the past. Cost escalation in the shuttle program curtailed space science funding in the 1970s. Likewise, the shuttle system still suffers from a lack of spare parts due to a squeeze in its own funding. Whatever course the administration adopts, it should make sure that the goals for manned space flight are within the long-term capacity of the country to sustain the effort it will take to accomplish them efficiently and without jeopardizing other aspects of the space program.
President Reagan had been expected to outline his space policy when Challenger landed. But the Soviet attack on the Korean airliner understandably stole the administration's attention. However, as this crisis subsides, it is important that the President give a firm sense of direction to the US manned space effort. Meanwhile, the Soviets - who seem to have their own space goals clearly in mind - are rapidly establishing a permanent manned presence in orbit.