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Columbia's military cargo

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Once again the crew of the shuttle Columbia is proving that the exhilarating drama of space is not just to be found at the Saturday matinee. But amidst all the absorbing press accounts out of Cape Canaveral these days about tiles, insulation hoses, missing rocket boosters, etc., one wonders if the American public has fully considered the implications of merging the civilian space program with military research and satellite launches in the shuttle enterprise.

This is part of the larger issue of NASA's future. Will it become mainly a ''bus company'' providing space transportation for the Department of Defense and civilian commercial users? Administrator James Beggs would like to get rid of shuttle operations and move on to the next space challenge - developing a manned space station.

Surely, the US needs to be abreast of the latest in military space technology - an area that the Soviet Union has pursued with equal vigor. But at the same time, the long-planned transformation of the civilian NASA program into a hybrid civilian-military venture is viewed with proper concern even by such stalwart supporters of space exploration as former astronaut - and Republican senator - Harrison Schmitt. For not only is the Pentagon now commanding a significant share of future space shuttle operations at the expense of civilian space research and development, but that very level of activity is intensifying a militarization of space that could extend the international crises and disputes of earth out into the vastness of the universe itself.

The ''quasi-militarization'' of the shuttle involves the following:

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