The space shuttle Columbia will cut a familiar image when it blasts into orbit next month for the second time. But the United States manned space program will suffer no indignity at launching a "used" spaceship. Columbia on its second mission will begin living up to its billing as an orbiting laboratory by playing host to a number of new scientific experiments.
In its scheduled Sept. 30 flight Columbia also will flex for the first time its $100 million remote-controlled manipulator arm, which on future flights will deploy and retrieve shuttle payloads such as weather and communications satellites. And through the ascent and entry phases of the mission, Columbia will deliberately be subjected to stress so that flight engineers can learn more about the aerodynamics of the spaceship.
The test and experiment package that wil ride with Columbia will provide the first demonstration of the shuttle's research capabilities. The package, called Osta-1 because it was developed by NASA's (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) Office of Space and Terrestrial Applications, includes:
* A 30-foot-long "imaging radar" that will provide high- resolution images of Earth's land masses. NASA hopes the radar will deliver detailed information about the locations of oil and other mineral deposits through the delineation of faults and other geologic features.
* A multispectral infrared radiometer, which will also be used for more detailed geologic mapping of Earth's land masses. This device will evaluate 10 bands of infrared light to determine their usefulness in identifying Earth's geology.
* An instrument for measuring air pollution in the middle and upper troposphere (the region stretching from Earth's surface to an altitude of about 110 miles). This experiment will specifically gauge the distribution of carbon monoxide.
* A scanner for gathering color information from the ocean. The objective is to develop an instrument that can use color to locate phytoplankton, a basic link in the marine food chain. This could improve the efficiency of ocean fishing.
* A "feature identification and location experimet" to try to devise methods for making satellites more selective in the data they gather.
* Equipment that will enable the shuttle crew to take motion pictures of lightning from the cabin. The films will provide meteorologists with more data about thunderstorms.
* A preliminary experiment to measure the relationship between plant growth, soil moisture, and weightlessness. The results of the "Heflex Bioengineering Test" will be a prelude to further testing in 1983 on the planned Spacelab I mission.
While the second shuttle mission is scheduled to last five days, astronauts Joe H. engle and Richard H. Truly have said most of the major flight objectives could be accomplished in the first two days.
The mission is actually more ambitious than originally planned. The near complete success of Columbia's maiden flight in April has encouraged NASA to do more testing on this mission. Also, the shuttle's power consumption on its initial voyage was less than predicted so NASA was able to extend the second flight by one day.
The major problem on the first Columbia flight was the loss of some of the spaceship's thermal tiles. The tiles protect the craft from the extreme heat encountered on reentering Earth's atmosphere.
There remains no "firm determination" as to what caused the loss of tiles, but the "educated guess," according to NASA, is higher than expected pressure on the vehicle at launch. The launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Fla., will be modified for this mission to reduce the shock wave from the solid rocket boosters during liftoff.
The remote manipulator arm, built by Spar Aerospace Ltd. of Canada, will be tested to see how it responds to commands from the crew. Its performance may well determine whether the shuttle begins operational flights, as scheduled, in the fall of 1982. The timetable now calls for two more test flights following the coming mission.