The delay of the maiden flight of Discovery is disappointing for the space shuttle team. But the National Aeronautics and Space Administration can be expected to repair the engine malfunction with its usual efficiency. Thus the disappointment need be only temporary.
It would be disastrous indeed were these continuing teething problems of a complex spacecraft allowed to undercut the usefulness of the shuttle system. Yet this would be the likely outcome of even a partial withdrawal of the United States Department of Defense from its participation in the program.
The Air Force cites shuttle launch delays and equipment failures as a major reason for wanting to buy a new set of expendable rockets to launch many of its satellites.
The Pentagon has been a reluctant partner in the shuttle program from its beginning over a decade ago. But the department has formally agreed that it will use the shuttle for virtually all its launch needs as soon as this is practical. That has generally been taken to mean within the next few years, and this expectation has been factored into NASA planning as it seeks to make the shuttle system comercially viable.
Now the Pentagon is having grave second thoughts. Its planners are reluctant to come through with a total commitment to the shuttle because they claim they cannot count on it when needed.
If NASA loses the anticipated defense business, it will have both revenue and image problems. Prospective commercial customers may well wonder why they should trust their satellites to the shuttle when the US military is reluctant to do so. This could undercut the efforts of NASA to compete for satellite launching business with Europe, Japan, and soon the Soviet Union.
The wisdom of the US relying so heavily on the shuttle has long been questioned, as have NASA's hopes for making that system truly pay its way without subsidy. But the US now has the shuttle system in place. It should try to make the most of it.
If the Defense Department really needs more rockets of its own for pressing military purposes, perhaps it should have them. But Congress and the administration should weigh very carefully the effect this might have on the shuttle. The US has invested too much effort and money acquiring the space capability the shuttle represents to let it be downgraded now.