A FEW minutes after 1 o'clock yesterday afternoon, space travel suddenly became a part of real life. There was nothing exotic about the landing of the Columbia on that desert in California -- no splashdown, no frogmen, no rubber boats.As the space shuttle rolled to a stop and the trucks gathered around, it looked little different from any other airplane landing at any one of hundreds of airports. Even the steps that were brought out to provide access to the crew compartment would have been at home at National Airport. For the first time in the history of the space program, the machine and the men seemed life-sized, something most of us have seen before and can count on seeing again.

As he watched the perfect landing, Astronaut Joseph P. Kerwin remarked that a new airline had just been born. While it will be a while before the shuttle becomes the airline of space, the idea that ordinary people -- not just super-trained astronauts -- can orbit the Earth is no longer a dream. It is only a matter of time, if the government properly develops this great new tool, until the shuttle opens to travel the near reaches of space in the same way the airplane has opened the air immediately above the Earth.

The flight of the Columbia was a remarkable testimonial to American technology and to a government agency. Despite the long delays and the huge cost overruns, NASA and the scientific community produced a space vehicle that, once launched, performed precisely as they said it would. The theories and the engineering that went into this untested craft where without a major flaw. Not often have science and technology been able to produce a product that performed so well on its first trip out of the workshop. Indeed, historians will be hard pressed to find any major project in mankind's efforts to explore and exploit the environment in which the error rate has been so low.

There is still much to do before the new space transportation system, as NASA has formally designated the shuttles, becomes operational. More test flights will be conducted this year and next. Modifications in design are almost inevitable; the jetliners of today barely resemble the first commercial airplanes. But Columbia has demonstrated that the potential of space can be exploited on a regular basis at a price this nation can afford.