From now on, the United States and the Soviet Union will have to adjust to the rapid emergence of a third space-faring power -- Western Europe. That's the message the crew of West Germany's first manned spaceflight has delivered along with the highly successful research program it conducted in the European-supplied Spacelab on board the shuttle Challenger.
This demonstration of growing space flight competence strengthens the hand of European Space Agency (ESA) delegates now meeting with National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) officials in Washington -- and with other foreign partners, notably Japan and Canada -- to review participation in the US space-station project. ESA, which participated heavily in the West German-organized Spacelab mission, has adopted the attainment of European space autonomy as a formal goal. Participation as a full pa rtner in the space-station program, designed to put a station on orbit by 1992, is considered the logical route to this achievement.
ESA expects its major contribution to be a manned module called Columbus, which is to be a small space station in its own right that mates with the larger US facility. And, as noted by Wubbo Ockels -- ESA's representative on the three-member German/Dutch astronaut team -- the Spacelab D-1 mission just ended was an important step toward developing the competence needed to manage an ambitious project such as Columbus.
At 12:45 Eastern standard time Wednesday, Challenger landed safely at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The five American astronauts had essentially been providing services for the European crew. West German scientist-astronaut Ernst Messerschmid referred to this when he remarked on space-to-ground radio that ``we relied on our American friends to get us into orbit, and they will provide us a reliable trip back to Earth.''
For the first time in space flight history, a major part of a mission was controlled from Europe rather than from the United States or the Soviet Union. Mission controllers at the German Space Operations Center at Oberpfaffenhofen near Munich showed they can manage complex operations and cope with emergencies as well as any veteran of NASA's control center at Houston.
Problems with some of the equipment on board Spacelab were overcome early. A balky furnace, used in experiments with various materials, was particularly bothersome because it drew too much power before it was fixed. This used up an excessive amount of hydrogen in Challenger's fuel cells. The hydrogen combines with oxygen in the cells to produce electricity. West Germany asked to extend the mission an extra day. But NASA officials said there was not enough fuel-cell hydrogen left and denied the request.
As a result, although Challenger had to return Wednesday as originally planned, West German controllers worked closely with their astronauts to complete most of the research program. Referring to the extra work, Dr. Messerschmid remarked, ``We don't mind. The work is fun.'' His West German colleague, Reinhard Furrer, agreed. Like many astronauts before him, he said, ``It will be difficult for me to come back.''
West Germany's first spaceflight has delivered a wealth of new data on the weightless behavior of various materials, of living cells, and of the astronauts themselves. It's the kind of knowledge Europe needs to realize its declared ambition to lead industrial exploitation of zero-gravity conditions.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union, as well as the US, is having to take Europe's growing space prowess seriously. NASA administrator James M. Beggs recently noted that the Soviets are wooing Western Europe and Japan, which also strives for space mastery, to join in space projects. Mr. Beggs observed that the Soviets ``will be seeking to . . . initiate activities with our European friends and even the Japanese in the pursuit of [Soviet] goals in space.''
He added, ``We will need to pay ever more attention to the issue of maintaining our competitive posture and continuing to maintain a lead so our friends will continue to work with us as their prime partner.''
ESA has made it plain, through official statements and unofficial contacts, that it expects NASA to receive Europe as a full and equal partner, not as a subordinate participant. The European agency's long-term plans embrace development of the full range of spaceflight capabilities. That includes a French-conceived space shuttle called Hermes, for which France has just let design contracts and which may soon be adopted as an official ESA program.
Assessing ESA's goals and growing spaceflight competence in an editorial last week, the industry journal Aviation Week and Space Technology advised NASA that it ``would do well to respond positively'' to Western European ambitions.