DESPITE THE FANFARE that accompanied the first free flight of the Enterprise yesterday, it is merely another step in the long development of the space shuttle and the resumption of the manned space program. Much remains to be done before craft of that kind become the workhorses of space. What has been demonstrated is that a spacecraft of this design can land, smoothly and beautifully, after being cut loose from an airplane at 25,000 feet. What remains to be demonstrated is that the same type of vehicle can be launched into space, maneuvered in orbit, and then brought back safely into the earth's atmosphere.
The goal of the program of which the Enterprise is the centerpiece is to produce a space shuttle that not only will make trips into earth orbit routine but also will substantially reduce their cost. The flight of the Enterprise indicates that one of the key elements in the cost-reduction calaculation - the recovery and reuse of the space vehicle - is within reach. Bringing down so gently and precisely a 150,000-pound craft that has no engines and thus little ability to maneuver is much more difficult than it appeared to be on the television screen. The fact that the free flight came off without a hitch is another star in that galaxy NASA has collected by producing equipment that performs just as it is supposed to.
If all goes well, launches and landings of these Buck Rogers-style craft will be everyday affairs in less than a decade NASA is already talking in terms of weekly flights and is beginning to round up business for them, business that is quite different from what we have become accustomed to at Cape Canaveral. The shuttles will be used not only for scientific work but also for practical applications of what has already been learned about space. They will allow this country to exploit as well as explore. The shuttles, for instance, will be able to release new satellites, capture worn-out ones, service those that are still useful, haul supplies to space laboratories and work platforms and - if you want to stretch you imagination - take raw materials to and bring finished products from space manufacturing plants.
In that sense, the overtones of the Space Day proclaimed earlier this week by California Gov. Jerry Brown are not nearly as far-fetched as they might seem. The possibility of relatively cheap access to space has begun to attract the interest of some hightechnology businesses. One recent study, of example, suggests that the reduction of waste if silicon wafers were manufactured in gravity-free space rather than on earth would more than offset the projected costs of putting a small plant out there. It is such possibilities as these toward which the flight of the Enterprise is moving us. Without them, yesterday's flight would have had little, if any, more significance than dozens of other test flight that have occurred at Edwards Air Force Base during the past 35 years. Because of them, the flight provided a look at part of our space future.