Space shuttle Columbia and the Spacelab workshop it carries have opened a new era of exploration. A quarter century into the space age, scientists can at last accompany their experiments into orbit. What is equally important, this mission has renewed both the spirit and the substance of US-European space cooperation.
Unilateral actions by the US had compromised these in recent years. Needless changes in contractual arrangements, often made without adequately consulting European partners, caused hard feelings.
But the valuable working relationship was most seriously strained a few years ago when the US reneged on its share of a joint solar exploration project, called Solar-Polar. That program would have sent two satellites into orbit high above the sun - one over its south pole, the other over the north.
The US reneging happened under the previous administration. The current NASA administrator, James Beggs, now says that decision was ''a very bad mistake.'' He calls European contributions to the US space program ''very, very valuable.'' He sees the billion-dollar Spacelab, supplied by the European Space Agency, as representing a new start of a productive, mutually beneficial relationship. This is a welcome change in US outlook.
The presence in the current crew of the first non-American member of a US space mission is a symbol of this international cooperation. He is Dr. Ulf Merbold, a West German physicist.
The third decade of the space era is likely to lay the foundation for a permanent human presence in space. Indeed, either the US or the USSR, or both, may actually commission a permanently manned space station before 1990. The Europeans, Japanese, and other US international partners should play an important role in the US version of that enterprise.
As with the high seas, near-earth space belongs to all mankind. There is room there for private business efforts and strictly national projects. But as our last and grandest frontier, space represents a continuing opportunity for general human progress.
Joint space programs spread costs and enlarge the pool of available talent for both manned and unmanned space science missions. They also help keep the emphasis where it should be - on a wider sharing of space exploration and not on parochial concerns.
Thus the Columbia/Spacelab mission is more than another major step in manned space exploration. It symbolizes the cooperative spirit that must eventually characterize all of this planet's outreach toward the cosmos.