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Columbia: ingenuity versus glitches

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For astronaut Richard Truly, the successful second launching of the space shuttle Columbia was ''the biggest birthday candle I ever had!'' Lifting off at 10:10 a.m. EST, Nov. 12, Columbia became the first spacecraft to go into orbit more than once. This opens a new era of reusable space transportation.

The fact that it happened on Captain Truly's birthday was compensation for the frustration he and Columbia commander Joe Engle felt when their first launch attempt was scrubbed a week earlier. Oil contamination in the units that power the spacecraft's hydraulic systems had forced the postponement. Now, with clean lubricating oil and oil filters, there were few problems to mar the launch countdown this time.

The timing of the launch was delayed 21/2 hours because a faulty data relay unit had to be located and replaced the previous day. There was a further slight delay that morning to sort out minor problems and, as launch director George Page put it, allow some of the tense members of the launching team to relax a little.

''Take your time and do it right,'' Mr. Page told his team. Then, explaining the short delay to the astronauts, he said he wanted to make certain ''we're going to give you a good one.'' Columbia entered orbit with no hitches.

But the mission could be shortened. At this writing there was a strong possibility that a malfunctioning fuel cell would be taken permanently off-line. Mission rules would the require curtailing the mission to 54 hours. Before the launch, astronaut Donald Slayton, in charge of operations, had said it was possible to achieve all important mission objectives within two days. One of the shuttle's three fuel cells, which supply electric power, was shut down because of suspected seepage between the hydrogen and oxygen sections of the cell.

But the uncovering of such troubles is the whole purpose of Columbia's first four missions. Taken together, they are intended to qualify for routine operation of what the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) calls the Space Transportation System.

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