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Discovery's greater mission

WORKING with skill, resourcefulness, and, at times, the strength of an Olympic weightlifter, Discovery's astronauts have again turned potential failure into success for the shuttle program. The attempt to fire Leasat-3 rockets, now scheduled for Oct. 29, will show whether or not the effort to restore life to that satellite has been been worthwhile for the Hughes Aircraft Company, which owns it. But as far as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is concerned, the astronauts' feats have been eminently worthwhile in helping to repair the shuttle's damaged reputation as a reliable satellite launching system.

At the same time, NASA's program managers still face the challenge of critics who wonder whether the shuttle can ever be a cost-effective way of working in space. Although NASA earned $40 million in fees for launching three communications satellites last week, this scarcely begins to cover the mission cost. Shuttle costs -- which some estimates put as high as $200 million or more -- are heavily subsidized. They will still be subsidized when the price for a full payload bay is raised to $71 million this fall.

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The questioning ranges from genuine concern for costs to self-serving complaints of international and would-be domestic competitors. The Department of Transportation, which has a mandate to foster private American rocket-launching companies, would like NASA to charge $250 million for a full shuttle mission. That would price the shuttle out of the satellite launching market.

Self-serving or not, such criticism misses a crucial point. The worth of the shuttle cannot be judged wholly on its commercial income statements. The shuttle system and its hard-working astronauts are opening a new arena for commercial activity, as, indeed, are Soviet cosmonauts in their Salyut prototype space station. Both the United States and the Soviet Union soon will begin to build the orbital infrastructure for permanent occupation and use of near-Earth space. This will include both manned space s tations and the kind of free-flying platform that NASA and its industrial partners recently announced. Such platforms will provide a base for manufacturing equipment and scientific instruments, which shuttle-based -- and eventually space-station-based -- astronauts will service.

The shuttle is a national resource whose ultimate worth can be judged only with hindsight in the next century. It represents a national investment in a space-oriented future. It will be a major component in the cooperative international space endeavors, like the space station that the US seeks to organize and lead.

Seen in this perspective, Discovery's recent mission was a brilliant demonstration of an evolving manned space flight capability to operate effectively and almost routinely in Earth orbit. Full development of that capability, which will open the orbital frontier, is justification enough for the shuttle program.