It was as if the space program had been reborn.
When the winged spaceship Columbia landed in the Mojave Desert April 14, the sights of the languishing American space program were raised higher than they had been since 1962, when President Kennedy made it a national goal to land Americans on the moon before 1970.
The flight of Columbia has generated the most political support for the space program on Capitol Hill since the spectacular years of the moon landing program, according to Rep. Don Fuqua (D-Fla.), chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee. The military, scientific and commercial possibilities of the space shuttle seem almost limitless.
It can put friendly military satellites into space or pluck out those of an enemy for destruction or secret inspection.
It can be the means for putting in national telephone, television and raio systems in such huge nations as China and India, both of which have booked satellites on the shuttle. It can carry a telescope capable of looking 10 times as far into space as any now on the ground.
"The space budget is in better shape up here than it's been in years," Fuqua said. "It was certainly enhanced by the flawless first flight of the space shuttle."
Except for the Pentagon, the space agency has fared better than any other federal agency under President Reagan's budget knife. His budget-cutters at the Office of Management and Budget restored $60 million for the shuttle program that had been cut from the Carter administration's fiscal 1981 budget proposals. It raised the total from $1.94 billion to $2 billion.
For the fiscal 1982, Reagan asked for $2,194 billion for the shuttle, only $36 million less than Carter requested. This is enough to maintain the shuttle flight schedule through 1985 and to maintain production of three new shuttle craft: Challenger, Discovery and Atlantis.
In part, the shuttle is enjoying good times because of the Pentagon. Two years ago the shuttle program was floudering, both technologically and politically, because of troubles with rocket engines and heat-resistant reentry tiles and the subsequent cost overruns.
A bipartisan effort by former senator Adlai Stevenson of Illinois and Sen. Harrison Schmitt (R-N.M.), a former astronaut, convinced senators debating the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) that the pact could never be verified without the shuttle to lift Pentagon surveillance satellites into orbit.
Columbia's flight silenced most remaining critics of the space program, but not all.
"Though the shuttle's maiden flight was impressive, the fact remains that we are committed to an extraordinarily costly system that is getting more expensive by the month," said Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.), ranking minority member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the most outspoken space critic on Capitol Hill.
"In fact, the bad news about increased shuttle costs and reduced flights will start to cascade forth now that the shuttle's image has been restored," he said.
There was a time Proxmire could count on support of at least a few other senators and congressmen in attacks on the space program. No longer. A Proxmire aide said, "A few days after the space shuttle flight, a talk show called up up asking the senator to give his views about it. Then, they asked up to give them the names of some other space critics and we couldn't. There aren't any."
So far, the shuttle has brought forth nothing but good news. That maiden flight promised for the first time that space has a practical payoff.
"The American people had difficulty understanding the value of moon rocks," Fuqua said. "They look at Columbia . . . and attach tangible benefits to the whole program."
The shuttle promises that hardware can be brought into space economically, that large items can be placed there, that equipment can be retrieved from space and brought back to earth, and that things can be repaired in space for the first time.
The payoff is obvious to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
The day after the flight, Rennsselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York called the agency wanting to upgrade a small experiment it had booked -- a canister of instruments to measure space radiation and magnetic fields and conduct other experiments -- into a full-fledged satellite that could be left in space and retrieved later.
Three countries contacted NASA wanting to book space on the shuttle for communications satellies they had planned to fly on more expensive conventional rockets.
Right now, the space agency has $500 million in booking from 43 federal agencies, commercial users and foreign countries for staellite space on the 37 flights scheduled on four shuttle craft through 1985. Of these, 11 are military flights that will carry no civilian payloads. NASA has tentatively scheduled 487 flights through 1993.
The satellite cargo bays of the space shuttle are booked for the next five years.
"It's very simply a question of ecomonics," said Dr. Stanley Weiss, NASA's associate administrator in charge of shuttle operations. "The people who are giving up $500 million in fees for space on the shuttle would be spending more than $1 billion if they booked the same space on conventional rockets."
The biggest users of the shuttle are private companies and foreign countries wanting shuttle space for communications satellites. Thirty-seven communications satellites have been booked on shuttle flights, half from U.S. suers and half from foreign countries.
Canada and Australia will fly four satellites each on the shuttle. West Germany, the People's Republic of China, India, Indonesia and a consortium of Arab countries will each fly two. And the tiny country of Luxemourg has booked space for two.
"Luxembourg is in it for the money it expects to make on European telephone service," Weiss siad. "It's strictly a commercial venture for them."
It's not strictly business for India, Australia, Indonesia, China and the Arab countries. They need communications satellites if they are to have telephone, television and radio networks. The expense of stringing telephone wires or laying out microwave antennas across countries as huge as Astralia, as mountainous as India or as strungout as Indonesia would be overwhelming.
China, with an estimated 1 million telephones for 1 billion people, is a perfect example of a country that needs the shuttle for communications satellites.
"Not only are communications satellites the only way to open up telephone service in a country as big as China," NASA's Weiss said, "it's a way to unify the country politically. Perhaps the only way."
So far, about a third of the space shuttle's bookings are for scientific satellites whose launch costs would be prohibitive on conventional rockets. A few, like the five-ton space telescope to be carried into orbit in 1984, could not make it into space without the shuttle.
The huge telescope points up another shuttle advantage. The space agency plans to leave it in orbit for 20 years, and services and repairs will be done by shuttle astronauts.
On spacecraft the shuttle will not bring back and which scientists would like to fly on the shuttle in 1985 is a 4,000-pound spacecraft designed to intercept Halley's Comet when it flies around the sun in 1986. So far, the space agency has not formally requested the Reagan administration to approve the $250 million mission but it may next January.
The shuttle can also carry into space cheap payloads: canisters packed with instruments that weigh less than 200 pounds and will cost the user no more than $10,000. Already booked on shuttle flights are 293 of the canisters, which NASA calls "get-away specials."
Among the "specials" are 139 experiments supplied by drug, electronics and chemical companies to test the effects of weightlessness on their products. Among 78 come from universities, testing the effects of weightlessnes on such things as human blood behavior, regrowth of lizard tails, breeding of German cockroaches and ability of flying insects to adapt to a sudden loss of gravity.