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Lost in Space


By Thomas H. Howlett

MY BUDDY EV'S UNCLE BREWSTER is going to soar in the Space Shuttle less than a year from now.

Native of Michigan, Vietnam veteran, source of intense family pride, Maj. Brewster H. Shaw Jr. will climb aboard the jewel of America's space program sometime next September for a flight which may be the shuttle's first round-trip voyage--from Cape Canaveral, Fla. and back again. With Brewster finally having his day in orbit after five years in the space program, relatives and friends look to the shuttle with pride and excitement. The overall purpose of the ninth mission will to them to be irrelevant. However, this flight--along with the others, including this week's--will likely neither prove relevant nor exciting to others, reflecting a substantive change in the way America looks at its journeys into space.

This week's shuttle launch shows how the mystique and wonder which used to shroud America's journeys into space has all but dissipated. Grade schoolers surely were not glued to their TV sets yesterday morning to see coverage of the Columbia's lift-off as many of us were in the days of the Apollo missions with their seeming round-the-clock network coverage. And even the media, which rarely resists saturating degrees of reportage, has described the latest mission in unexceptional terms: The New York Times relegated a preview of Thursday's lift-off to page B-16, behind all its international, national and local coverage.

Several factors are responsible for the cooling of America's love affair with space travel. The repeated shuttle flights make the launch pad routine and the plumes of fiery smoke much more matter-of-fact. This $11 billion project is far, less dramatic than previous NASA endeavors. The uses of the shuttle have also tempered American enthusiasm. The emphasis in space travel has shifted from a scientific one rooted in a relatively pure quest for advancing technology to one exploring less-vaunted commercial and military possibilities.

The current shuttle marks the commercial debut of the giant craft with its releasing of two commercial satellites. Following four missions geared toward mechanical testing, the shuttle now assumes its intended status as a super-duper cargo plane, with NASA has some sort of high-powered United Parcel Service. Further dashing the quixotic nature of the space program has been the shuttle's secret military uses. The fourth shuttle flight last June contained classified military cargo and little else. Rumored to be an infra-red tracking and ranging device, the military stow-aways chillingly affirmed the political role which the shuttle will apparently play.

The commercial and militaristic emphasis of the shuttle project has to some extent come at the expense of pure research. When the plans for the shuttle were first unveiled, a half-dozen teams of scientists at the joint Harvard-Smithsonian astrophysics center in Cambridge received the thumbs-up to numerous projects designed for the shuttle. That number has dropped since then, with only one endeavor--an infra-red telescope--having a reservation for a trip in the near future and still receiving full NASA backing. Scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian center are now anxiously awaiting the green-light on projects for now tabled.

Uncle Brewster has his green light. Although flight number nine will have a special importance and relevance to family and friends, the journey certainly will not infuse tremendous nationwide pride like missions in the past. More troubling, though, is the increasing importance of space travel for corporate heads and defense strategists. If space shuttle flights go increasingly unnoticed, they may backfire.

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