AMERICA'S space-shuttle program is entering a new, largely civilian era.
Discovery's upcoming flight - now scheduled for Dec. 2 - will carry the last major military payload now planned for the shuttle. Any future Department of Defense (DOD) involvement with the shuttle program will be conducted through what Air Force Assistant Secretary Martin Faga calls "secondary payloads."
From now on, the Space Transportation System - to use its official National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) name - will be essentially a civilian service.
NASA originally sold the shuttle to Congress as a dual-purpose system that would serve both civil and military needs. Concerns that this would lead to military domination of the shuttle program never materialized.
In fact, the Defense Department stopped launching its satellites by shuttle after the Challenger accident. Nevertheless, NASA administrator Daniel Goldin notes, the shuttle has carried "nine DOD primary payloads ... since 1985."
Now there is not a hint of military activity in the shuttle manifests for 1993 and beyond. These missions reflect the shuttle program's new focus on building and servicing the space station, conducting scientific and commercial research, and carrying out international projects.
Some of the eight shuttle flights planned for next year plow new ground in these areas. Discovery's November flight will probably be the highlight, for it will carry a United States/Russian crew.
Cosmonauts Vladimir Titov and Sergei Krikalev are already training for this historic mission at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. One of them will fly, while the other serves as backup.
This mission - coming just after the phaseout of the shuttle's military operations - will symbolize the closer cooperation in crewed spaceflight that is developing between the US and Russia. Russian experiments
It will carry out a variety of materials and biological experiments, including life-science experiments sponsored by the Russian Space Agency.
Both countries have assigned some of their best astronauts for this work. For example, the mission commander, Col. Charles Bolden, has flown three shuttle missions before and most recently has served as NASA assistant deputy administrator. And Colonel Titov holds the space-flight endurance record, having logged nearly 366 days on the Russian Mir space station.
NASA is preparing for an American visit to the Mir space station, probably in 1995. The astronaut will travel to Mir in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Some 90 days later, an American space shuttle is to dock with Mir. It will carry a Russian replacement crew and return the resident Mir crew - the astronaut and two cosmonauts - to Houston to continue the research they were conducting on Mir.
NASA has engaged Rockwell International Corporation, builder of the shuttle, to work with Russian counterparts to equip a shuttle for this mission. Rockwell has contracted with NPO Energia in Moscow for information about the Energia docking system and for tests of how to adapt that system for NASA's shuttle. The Russian mechanism, which was designed for the Russian shuttle, could possibly become an international standard for spacecraft-docking. Rockwell expects to sign another contract with Energia to bu y a docking system for NASA next year.
Discovery's November flight will also help inaugurate another new phase of shuttle activity: research with a commercial laboratory. This is a pressurized compartment, carried in a shuttle cargo bay, in which people can do experiments. It is smaller and less elaborate than the European supplied Spacelab laboratory used on NASA and international missions. Spacehab of Washington, D.C., which owns the new laboratory modules, has arranged for eight shuttle flights at $32 million each. The first flight on the shuttle Endeavour next April or May is sold out. Discovery will carry the second Spacehab module on its November mission. Spacelab flies again
The larger Spacelab laboratory will also fly again next year. Columbia is scheduled to take it up twice. It will orbit in February for a second German-sponsored research mission. It will orbit again in August or September for the second of a series of life-science research missions NASA has planned to help prepare for living on its space station.
One of the most spectacular missions next year will be carried out by Endeavour in December, when its crew repairs the Hubble Space Telescope. Once again, astronauts will have to grab an orbiting satellite.
Shuttle missions will also launch two communications satellites next year. And they will carry out a variety of experiments in the spacecraft cabin. During the mission on which Endeavour flies the first Spacehab, astronauts are scheduled to retrieve the European free-flying EURICA laboratory that was launched on board Atlantis July 31.