The recent fuss over secrecy on space shuttle military missions has obscured an important point. Manned space flight is no longer primarily a great pioneering adventure. At least in low Earth orbits, which is where the current issue lies, it is fast becoming part of the world's workaday operations.
As with other working technologies such as automotive transport, heavier-than-air flight, or unmanned rocketry, it will have its military uses. But unlike cars, airplanes, and satellite launchers, the shuttle is much too costly, and its present military usefulness much too limited, for the Department of Defense to have one of its own.
Thus DOD has joined a variety of civilian customers in hiring the services of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) civilian Space Transportation System (STS), to use its official name. And, like some prospective customers who may be developing commercial products, DOD would like its business kept secret.
These well-known facts seem to have been forgotten during the recent flap over the first of the shuttle's military flights. That debate has run to extremes on both sides of the secrecy issue.
Nobody turned a hair when McDonnell Douglas and Johnson & Johnson imposed commercial secrecy on the electrophoresis process they are developing to make drugs in orbit. But the DOD alarmed the press by negotiating with NASA to impose a news blackout on virtually every aspect of shuttle flights with military projects. DOD chief information officer Brig. Gen. Richard Abel then needlessly threw down a gauntlet by threatening to investigate any press speculation regarding such missions.
There was no way the DOD could curb informed ''speculation'' about the Jan. 23 mission when a number of details of the new spy satellite to be launched had already been published by the industry journal Aviation Week and Space Technology. Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger only made himself look foolish by calling the Washington Post ''irresponsible'' for printing facts about the mission which were already publicly available. After all, the DOD has lived with this kind of publicity regarding secret military launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base for many years.
In fact, last week's issue of Aviation Week carried an article reporting efforts by NASA to interest the Air Force in buying shuttle services to refuel and repair satellites in orbit. The article commented in some detail on the number, nature, and implications of Vandenberg's military satellite launches this year.
Thus the DOD went overboard in its concern about secrecy on the Jan. 23 mission. On the other hand, those commentators who have claimed the military is beginning to take over the US space program are also needlessly alarmist. Just because the DOD has been forced to take public transportation for some of its space missions does not mean that it is taking over the trans-portation system.
Historically, the US military has often played a major role in space development. It was Wernher von Braun's Army rocket team which put the first US satellite into orbit. Then, as the era of both unmanned and manned space exploration opened, the pioneering role was given to a new civilian agency - NASA - with a mandate to publicize its work openly. The DOD was to concentrate on military matters - rocket weapons and satellites for military reconnaissance, navigation, and communication.
When the shuttle program was conceived a decade and a half ago, it was foreseen that it would bring a new era of routine operation in low Earth orbit. The DOD reluctantly agreed to contribute to shuttle development and to use its services, because the shuttle was to be a national resource to serve all customers.
The DOD remains a reluctant customer because - as the several delays of what now is the Jan. 23 mission illustrate - it can't count on the shuttle to launch critically needed satellites on time. That is why the Air Force has obtained authority to maintain a backup supply of unmanned launching rockets. Indeed, NASA is less concerned about a military takeover of the shuttle than it is over the possibility of losing anticipated DOD business needed to make the shuttle commercially viable.
The shuttle does indeed provide routine access to near-Earth space as anticipated. That access is available commercially to customers who are being sought throughout the world. Is it any more startling that the US Defense Department should be among those customers than it is to find the DOD among the customers for commercial communications, airline, shipping, or other routine businesses? Even its priority among shuttle customers is no different from the priority it often can assert for other critical services should the need arise.
Both the DOD and its critics need to see the shuttle secrecy issue in this perspective. It is perfectly reasonable for the military to keep its shuttle payloads and programs secret. This only seems startling because it involves what has been the wide-open manned space flight program. At the same time, Secretary Weinberger and other DOD officials should be realistic in their expectations. If the nature of payloads launched by unmanned rockets can be deduced from publicly available information, they can't expect the press not to ''speculate'' about shuttle payloads in a similar manner.