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Flight toward space stations?

Columbia's safe landing in spite of the loss of a guidance computer has demonstrated the reliability of the shuttle design. It provides redundancy in depth - in this case, five computers, any one of which could have handled the landing. This capped the highly fruitful and unprecedented 10-day mission with one final success.

The mission has carried space science a giant step forward. The European-supplied Spacelab proved to be a workable orbiting laboratory. Now scientists can accompany their experiments into space and make adjustments, change strategy, and analyze on the spot. As Karl Knott, European chief project scientist, noted, this opens ''tremendous opportunities for space sciences.''

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The mission has also opened tremendous opportunities for further US-European cooperation in space. The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) considers the next logical stage of manned space flight to be a permanently occupied space station. Here research, repair, and maintenance of unmanned spacecraft and even manufacturing of special materials could be carried out. Now officials of the 11-nation European Space Agency (ESA) are saying they want to join any such project as full partners.

Thus, it is most important that the US develop a national consensus on manned-space-flight goals. None now exists, though NASA has preliminary plans and design concepts. Until consensus exists no specific space-station concept can usefully be approved. In the 1984 election year there may be lively debate over this issue: it could prepare the way for formulating such goals.

One of the most important factors to be decided is the role of the military. ESA officials say that direct military involvement with an otherwise civilian space-station project would poison the atmosphere for cooperation.

A European-US partnership in continued development of space flight would be valuable to both sides. It would spread costs and pool badly needed talent. Thus , were the US military eventually to want a space station, this should be kept separate from the NASA project.

A decade ago any thought of an international space station was still a subject for science fiction. Now it is emerging as a serious matter of national policy. The success of the Columbia-Spacelab mission makes it clear that the time is upon us to decide whether and when to begin to move toward this next stage of space flight.

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