When astronaut Joe Engle flew the space shuttle Columbia back to Earth last November after an abbreviated three-day mission, he was so dehydrated from being sick in space that he gulped down two quarts of water in the van that took him and astronaut Dick Truly from the runway at California's Edwards Air Force Base.

Not only had Engle suffered his entire time in orbit from space sickness, one of the fuel cells that power the shuttle and supply the crewmen with their drinking water had broken down and was putting out water that was so alkaline and filled with hydrogen bubbles that it was undrinkable.

In the midst of his illness Engle could not avail himself of the one cure doctors recommend for motion sickness. He couldn't drink the water.

"We brought that flight down early because the fuel cell didn't work, but it would be a tough question today if somebody said would you bring it down early anyway," Dr. Gerald Soffen, director of life sciences for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, told The Washington Post. "I remember, I was sweating blood at the time. I'm grateful we brought it down because I didn't have to deal with it."

What Soffen and the space agency he works for have to deal with more and more these days is what Engle suffered through in his three days in space. After more than 20 years of sending men into space, NASA is discovering that it has a new problem on its hands. Its most careful calculations now suggest that half of all the astronauts the agency puts into orbit will become space sick.

The surprise is that space sickness is a new problem. Of the more than 30 astronauts who flew on the Gemini and Apollo missions, only a handful got sick, and none was seriously ill in space. The numbers increased slightly on Skylab, but the nine men who flew the marathon Skylab missions were in space for so long that nobody worried about the sudden change.

Just wait a few days, the doctors said, the Skylab crew members who aren't feeling too well will be shipshape in no time.

"This is the Russian solution to the problem," Soffen said. "One of the reasons the Soviet space flights are so long is that they tell their cosmonauts to do nothing the first few days they're in orbit. If you don't move around much up there, you're not going to feel too bad."

But many of the space shuttle flights that will take place in the next 10 years will be short flights. None is planned to last more than a week. Two or three days of space sickness thus could prolong a mission or even foul it up.

Shuttle space sickness is a new phenomenon, in part because the cabins of the Gemini and Apollo spacecraft that flew before the shuttle were so cramped the astronauts didn't have room enough to move around in to get sick. The more room there is in a spacecraft for astronauts to move about, the more likely it's going to be that one of its crewmen is going to fall ill.

The first shuttle flight last year lulled everybody at the space agency into thinking that space sickness was still no problem. Neither John Young or Bob Crippen felt any wooziness their 54 hours in orbit, but Young and Crippen are apparently among those rare people who will never get sick in space.

"Young is what the pilots call a 'leadhead,' " Soffen said. "A leadhead is a guy who can't get sick, no matter what you do to him."

The second flight was commanded by Engle, who was ill his entire three days in space. Flight three was flown by Jack Lousma and Gordon Fullerton. Lousma was ill almost as soon as he took off his pressurized space suit, an exercise that requires a lot of struggle in the weightless state of space. Fullerton admitted that once Lousma got sick he didn't feel all that well for a while either.

On the fourth flight, T. K. Mattingly apparently felt fine all the way through the seven-day flight. But Hank Hartsfield said, "I had a headache for a few days and a knot in my stomach like my pants were too tight."

The fifth flight of the space shuttle will last only four days and carry four astronauts, twice as many crewmen as have flown on previous flights. What if two get sick their first two days in orbit, when a pair of $100 million communications satellites are to be left in space?

"This is no longer something for idle conversation," Soffen said. "This is an issue that is of serious concern to us at the agency."