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Let US Journalists Go Into Orbit

ACCORDING to the current issue of Spaceflight, the British Interplanetary Society monthly, two Soviet journalists are taking crash training at the cosmonauts' Star City center. One of them is to visit the Mir space station in late July. The first human in space was a Soviet cosmonaut. Now the first orbiting journalist will also be from the Soviet Union. Whether it is Svetlana Omelchenko of Moscow's Air Transport newspaper or Pavel Mukhortov of Riga's Soviet Youth, as a fellow journalist I cheer the successful candidate on.

It also is hard not to feel slightly chagrined. But for the Challenger accident, the first orbiting journalist would have been American. Perhaps it would have been one of the semifinalist candidates who appeared before the selection panel on which I served four years ago.

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The National Aeronautics and Space Administration had opened shuttle flights to nonastronaut civilians. First there were private payload specialists tending commercial experiments. Next came Sen. Jake Garn (R) of Utah and Rep. Bill Nelson (D) of Fla. The teacher-in-space program was inaugurated. Then it was to be a journalist's turn. The applicant pool was winnowed to 100 semifinalists. These appeared in groups of 20 before one or another of five regional panels, each of which picked eight candidates for the finals.

Our panel reviewed candidates from the northeast United States. They were a stellar group of proven news professionals - quite ready to face the challenge and risks of space flight as they faced challenging assignments on Earth. Here, for example, was TV's veteran reporter Walter Cronkite with just a slight nervousness to his urbanity as he settled into the interview chair saying, ``Good morning - I think.''

He made it to the finals along with seven others from our group plus 32 selected by the other panels. But then Challenger exploded, and NASA dropped the civilian-in-space program.

Critics said it had been a stunt. Space flight, they said, was too dangerous except for professional astronauts. They will say the same thing about the Soviet journalist when he or she heads for Mir. I think they're wrong.

It's true that NASA flew members of Congress who influence its budget. It's true that the teacher-in-space program was meant partly to enhance the prestige of teachers. And it's true the Soviets are rushing their journalist to Mir so that the representative of Toyko Broadcasting System, which has bought a Mir flight, won't be the first journalist in space.

But space flight has always had its public relations aspect. NASA put astronauts on the moon partly to enhance national prestige. That doesn't prevent Project Apollo from being a landmark in human history.

We asked each candidate why he or she wanted to go into space. Besides the sense of adventure, there was the desire to be the eyes and ears of ordinary people - to report the wonder of humanity's first small steps beyond Earth. What about the risks? It's safer, they said, than reporting from Beirut or from a totalitarian country where you can be clapped in jail on a dictator's whim.

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Space flight has opened a challenging new avenue for human development. It's time journalists began covering it on site. I wish the successful Soviet and Japanese reporters well. And hang in there Walter Cronkite. You may make it into orbit yet.

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