THE Gamma Ray Observatory (GRO), now orbiting Earth, has become a symbol for manned spaceflight, as well as being a powerful new tool with which astronomers study the most energetic radiation in the universe. Without the Jay and Jerry show in which astronauts Jay Apt and Jerry L. Ross freed the observatory's stuck antenna, the satellite would be merely a half-billion-dollar hunk of junk. Although not so intended, its rescue was a wonderful way to celebrate a double space- flight anniversary.
Ten years ago Friday, April 12, - the day after Atlantis returned from its spectacular GRO mission - Columbia took off on the first shuttle mission. What is more important, on April 12, 30 years ago, Yuri A. Gagarin circled Earth in the Soviet Union's Vostok 1. That was the first manned spaceflight. It helped give a more cosmic perspective to humankind's self-image.
What does it matter that cosmonaut Gagarin was virtually a prisoner in his space capsule, which was controlled from the ground? What does it matter that the early American astronauts who followed him were also little more than passengers, although they could control the attitude and re-entry of their crude craft? That first one-orbit spaceflight will stand forever as a major signpost in human achievement.
While this was acknowledged in 1961, the flight was seen in Western nations in the immediate perspective of East-West rivalry. The industry journal Aviation Week & Space Technology is right to note that, in the calmer perspective of history, Gagarin's flight symbolizes the "tremendous contributions to astronautics" that the Soviet Union has made.
Those first, crude, manned orbital flights were soon followed by the demonstration, by American astronauts, that humans can walk on another planet - in that case, our moon.
And, now, with the space shuttle, they are followed by the demonstration that humans can come and go and work on orbit with a re-usable spacecraft, even though this has not yet achieved the airline-like routine transportation that shuttle planners once promised. And for the Soviet Union, Gagarin's historic flight began an evolution that now has demonstrated a permanent human presence in Earth orbit.
Those are astounding achievements for a mere 30-year period. Regardless of the problems spaceflight programs now face, they evoke a sense of grandeur. But also, in that perspective, it seems a bit sad that, in both the Soviet Union and the United States, manned spaceflight is characterized more by doubt and uncertainty than by bold adventure.
Soviet space efforts now are subject to delays, cancellations, and budget pressures. In the United States, the space shuttle has not lived up to the promise of cheap, reliable transportation to Earth orbit. National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials once talked glibly of several dozen launches per year. In fact, the shuttle system has only managed 39 missions in 10 years.
It's time for the spaceflight pioneers to rethink their goals and cut their dreams to fit their means. But we still can celebrate what has been achieved. Let's hear it for the Jay and Jerry show.