Put space safety first

LAST week's adventurous return of two cosmonauts on a ``routine'' visit to the space station MIR is a timely reminder that space flight is dangerous. Indeed, this is the lesson of the Challenger accident all over again - albeit without the disastrous consequences. Soviet television commentator Alexander Tikhomirov said it well, as reported by the Associated Press: ``We are already used to everything going smoothly in space. And some forget about the danger which space research entails. And here, this once more convinces us how complex a matter it is and what a huge amount of abnormal situations awaits cosmonauts in orbit.''

It's not the cosmonauts and astronauts who need the lesson. They know the hazards they face. It's officials who are tempted to cut corners for the sake of publicity or scheduling. It's those among the press and public who, impatient for action, unwisely criticize a launch delay. These are the people who need to absorb the safety lesson.

According to James Oberg - a leading analyst of the Soviet space program and author of ``Uncovering Soviet Disasters'' (Random House, New York) - Mission Commander Vladimir Lyakhov and Afgan guest cosmonaut Abdul Ahad Mohmand lacked adequate training for this specific exercise. Officials cut short their normal 18-month training period by a year in order to orbit an Afgan citizen while Soviet troops pulled out of his country. Political and propaganda aims overrode safety, Oberg says.

It reminds one of the scheduling pressures and public relations effort to put a teacher in orbit that encouraged officials to cut corners before the Challenger explosion. In each case, a false sense of complacency allowed responsible officials to give too much weight to factors other than safety. And, in the case of shuttle launches, it allowed thoughtless journalists to ridicule launch officials when they did act cautiously in delaying a mission. Some members of the press have shown the same foolish impatience when NASA has repeatedly - and wisely - delayed the coming launch of the shuttle Discovery

Space flight is dangerous. But it need not be disastrous. Meticulous attention to safety can do much to ensure a mission's success. That includes allowing time for thorough training of both ground and flight crews. Fortunately, Cosmonaut Lyakhov had enough experience to handle the emergency when his ship's re-entry equipment malfunctioned even though he and his companion may not have practiced all the contingency procedures for that particular mission.

With the countdown simulation held last week, Discovery's astronauts have completed their training. NASA is reviewing all aspects of the mission's readiness. It should announce a launch date shortly. For planning purposes, the shuttle manifest updated Aug. 30 lists this as Sept. 27. But if NASA announces a date in mid-October or later, that's no reason to chide the agency.

Instead of news reports that refer to the ``much delayed'' or ``badly slipped'' Discovery shedule, how about emphasizing careful preparation? Everyone needs to treat this risky adventure of space flight with the respect it deserves.

A Tuesday column. Robert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor.

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