NOW that scientists are digging into the data, it's worth taking a second look at last month's troubled mission of the space shuttle Columbia and the Astro-1 observatory. What looked for a time like a spectacular failure has turned out to be a scientific success. As mission scientist Theodore Gull at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., has noted, the Astro team pulled their observatory out of a ``real jam.'' Astronauts and scientists on the ground learned to work the instruments manually when on-board computer failures crippled automated control. Even though they observed only 135 of the planned 200 astronomical targets, the data brought back Dec. 10 are so valuable that Dr. Gull says he's still floating on air.
Nevertheless, this 38th mission of the shuttle program - the 10th mission for Columbia in 10 years - does have a troubling aspect. In terms of its specific scientific objective, it's a success. In terms of the shuttle program's larger objectives, it represents a disappointing failure of long-term planning and program commitment.
The Astro-1 mission, as its name implies, was meant to be only the first of its kind. Equipped with refurbished and updated instruments, the $150-million observatory was to fly several times on the shuttle. There, above the obscuring atmosphere, it was to supplement the Hubble space telescope and other astronomical satellites. But there's no money for Astro-2 in the fiscal 1992 budget President Bush will send to Congress.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has other priorities now. They include the fund-gobbling space-station program that is, itself, in deep trouble. Both Congress and the national space goal commission chaired by Norman Augustine (chief executive officer of Martin Marietta Corporation) have expressed grave doubts about the station's design.
They also warn against relying on the shuttle. The Augustine commission recommends downplaying the shuttle - using it only when astronauts' skills really are needed. Both Congress and the Augustine commission are concerned that a substantial equipment failure or accident could cripple the shuttle fleet.
Astro is one of those long-term programs that depends on shuttle-supplied access to space over an extended time period. It represents an investment of professional experience of at least a decade plus the attendant support money. That's in addition to the nominal $150-million capital cost. More than one much-postponed flight is needed to provide an adequate return on that investment.
The Astro program, like other shuttle-dependent programs, was planned under the assumption that the shuttle would provide cheap and reliable - it will be there when needed - space transportation. It was also planned under the fiscal assumption that operational funds would be there when needed. Both assumptions have long-since been shown to be hopelessly unrealistic.
Astro-1 was to have been the next mission following the Challenger disaster. That accident - plus scheduling delays - put nearly a half-decade hiatus in the Astro program. Now NASA's shifting fiscal priorities could end the program well short of its expected payoff.
This is not noted to make a case for reinstating Astro funding. That program needs to be re-examined along with everything else NASA is doing in the light of the Augustine commission's recommendations that the United States shape its space program realistically according to its ability to carry through its objectives.
But Astro's story does provide a timely example. It typifies the unrealistic planning of the past. And that seems to be a habit that NASA finds hard to shake off. NASA officials have promised substantial reform. Yet they continue to laud the shuttle as a remarkable space-transport system and to push for the space station as a project in which too much has been invested to be abandoned.
NASA needs to make a clean break with such thinking. It needs to take a truly fresh look at itself and its vision. Thus, while we can enthusiastically give three hurrahs to the Astro mission team, there's only a Bronx cheer for NASA planners.