INITIALLY the United States space program seemed a dramatic novelty, like Magellan's global circumnavigation, Fulton's steamboat, and the maiden flight by the Wright brothers. But with the latest successful mission of Discovery, the space shuttle program has advanced firmly into the workaday world, as did its predecessors in other fields. The shuttle this week showed its versatility and utility as an orbital workhorse.
The retrieval of two satellites for earthly repair was extraordinary drama; at one point, 130-pound astronaut Joe Allen ''carried'' the 1,200-pound Palapa satellite once around the globe. The televised sight of astronauts physically shoving the two satellites around was one with which the average working person could identify: It humanized a program that had often seemed esoteric. A result is likely to be increased public support for the space program and, one hopes, greater government support.
Like the circling astronauts, the shuttle ground team performed well in getting off two shuttle missions in a little over a month. It has shown encouraging progress toward the kind of turnaround capacity needed to support the goal of launching up to 24 missions a year.
Further, the Discovery mission gave evidence that it is millions of dollars cheaper to retrieve - and, presumably, to repair and relaunch - defunct satellites than to leave them untouched and launch all-new equivalents.
Yet Discovery's achievements will probably do little to allay the concern the US Defense Department has expressed about the shuttle's reliability for carrying out crucial military missions. The Challenger was to perform a secret Pentagon mission early next month. Now its launch is postponed until late January because of serious problems with its heat-shielding tiles.
Had that mission involved orbiting a critical communications or spy satellite , the delay would be intolerable. Therefore the department plans to keep open the option of launching its payloads on expendable rockets. This is bad news for shuttle managers who had counted on a near-monopoly of Pentagon business to help the shuttle pay for itself.
That operation already faces stiff commercial competition from Western Europe's Ariane launcher. The Europeans underscored this by orbiting two satellites even as Discovery's crew was delivering payloads for two customers. Competitive pressure will increase now that private US companies and countries such as China and the Soviet Union are beginning to offer launch services.
Furthermore, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is under orders to raise its prices to cover costs. As one step it will double shuttle prices next year.
The space shuttle team has amply demonstrated the potential of its orbital transport system as a key to further development of US spaceflight capability. Now it has to convince would-be customers that it can provide reliable service at a realistic, yet competitive, price.