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Back in space again

DISCOVERY's safe return to Earth marks the start of the recovery of the American manned spaceflight program after the Challenger disaster. It's heartening to see American astronauts on orbit again. The mission gives the National Aeronautics and Space Administration a much-needed boost after 32 months of soul-searching, redesign, and bureaucratic restructuring.

The enthusiasm surrounding the four-day mission is justified. So is a reminder that the enthusiasm must not drown out two of the many lessons from Challenger.

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The first lesson involves money. When a president, the space agency, and Congress commit the United States to a major project such as the shuttle, don't fiddle with it, fund it. Many of the shuttle's technical problems can be traced to erratic budgeting. The ups and downs in money led to costly design changes and truncated testing programs. They also established an atmosphere in which rosy projections of the shuttle's benefits became the order of the day to justify congressional support.

This scene is already being replayed. Congress gave NASA $900 million in its fiscal 1989 budget for the space station. But the agency can spend only $385 million, pending a decision by the next president on whether to proceed.

The need for steady funding grows as Congress tries to cut the federal budget deficit. As space projects become more ambitious, they become too costly for one nation to undertake alone. The United States signed an agreement last week with Canada, the European Space Agency, and Japan covering their participation in the US space station project. They will contribute 20 percent of the station's $20 billion to $25 billion cost. Unstable budgets in the US are felt in these countries as schedules slip. The impression of unreliability will make it more difficult to sign other nations to future projects, especially when these nations have evolving space programs of their own.

The second lesson involves humanity's attitude toward manned spaceflight: It is an activity that deserves healthy respect. During a memorial to the seven Challenger astronauts killed in 1986, Discovery pilot Richard O. Covey noted the 200 miles separating the shuttle from Earth. It is, he said, ``a great gulf'' that will ``always be fraught with danger.''

No one should be sent into space who doesn't have an immediate reason to be there. High-profile public relations ploys such as allowing lawmakers, Saudi princes, teachers, journalists, artists, or musicians to fly on the shuttle sound fine. Why not let ``Everyman'' up? the argument goes; their taxes pay for the program, and they will be fully briefed on the risks. Manned spaceflight should not be made out to be routine when it isn't. Such misrepresentation raises the cost of failure. Consistent repeats of Discovery's nearly flawless flight, combined with the programs such as those that allow scientific experiments from high school and college students to compete for shuttle space, are more than enough to keep the public interested. Just ask the more than 300,000 people who gathered at Edwards Air Force Base to watch the landing.