Right on time and right on target, the space shuttle Columbia landed safely on Earth today, for the fifth time, making precision space flight, cargo delivery and experiments in weightlessness seem almost routine.
"We don't do them any better than this," James M. Beggs, administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, told astronauts Vance Brand, Robert Overmyer, William Lenoir and Joseph Allen.
Enthused Air Force Lt. Gen. James A. Abrahamson, associate administrator of NASA: "These men started what I feel is a revolution in space.
"We deliver," said shuttle commander Brand as the 100-ton spaceliner touched the runway exactly where he targeted the landing at 9:33 a.m. (EST), four minutes after sunrise in the California desert.
"The good news about this flight is that the United States space transportation system is operational," Lenoir said.
"We deliver" has been the catchword for this crew ever since they spun off a pair of $50 million communications satellites from the shuttle cargo bay to what will be their stations in orbit for the next 10 years.
Deliverance of the satellites at half the price it usually takes was a goal of this flight and one of the overriding reasons for the shuttle program.
The only thing that may have come back to haunt the program is the failure of two spacesuits that canceled the space walk Lenoir and Allen had planned for Monday, a circumstance that Abrahamson promised to remedy as soon as possible.
Abrahamson said that a space walk might be attempted as early as the next shuttle flight in February, and no later than the seventh flight in April, when Sally Ride will become the first American woman to fly into space.
A lot depends on what it was that caused the two spacesuits to fail and how quickly the next crew can absorb the extra training they will need to perform the kind of space walk Lenoir and Allen were to take on this flight.
"Flight crew training time is a very precious resource," Abrahamson said. "The next crew is already well into training for what looks like a very crowded timeline, but I'm more than willing to extend the mission a day or two if that's what's necessary."
The next flight, lasting three days, will be the first for the Challenger, the second spaceliner to be built.
Challenger is the first shuttle to be fitted with a new lightweight fuel tank and has three main engines more powerful than those used by Columbia.
The lightweight tank and the stronger engines will permit Challenger to haul into orbit a 50,000-pound satellite called the Tracking Data Relay.
The new satellite will be the nation's first in-orbit replacement for the aging network of disc-shaped antennae that are used to communicate with American satellites and astronauts in space.
Challenger will be moved Thursday night into the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., where it will be fitted with its two solid rocket engines and its new lightweight tank.
Even with the talk about the Challenger flight, all eyes today were still on Columbia and the first four-man crew any manned spacecraft had carried.
The spaceliner appeared in excellent shape at the end of its fifth flight. It is the first spacecraft built to be reused again and again.
Resting on the tarmac of Runway 22 today, Columbia nevertheless showed signs of use.
There were dark and yellowish streaks along its white fuselage and its black colored tiles in its nose and under the fuselage appeared darker than usual, suggesting the spaceliner suffered more scorching on reentry this time than on its first four flights.
One of its tires had a slow leak and was beginning to deflate.
"It's starting to look a little bit like a used spaceship," Abrahamson said. "I'd like it to look shiny and new but I guess I'd rather have it perform over and over again the way it has."
With its first operational shuttle flight behind it, many observers believe the United States is clearly pulling ahead of the Soviet Union in the race for supremacy in space.
The Soviets do not have a version of the shuttle and rely for their manned flights on their Salyut space station, which does not have a cargo bay to carry satellite payloads into space as the shuttle does.
Though the Soviets have a 5-to-1 edge on the amount of time their cosmonauts have spent in space over U.S. astronauts, space science officials say they perform the same tasks repeatedly in what appears to be little more than attempts to break their own endurance records.
The two Soviet cosmonauts aboard Salyut 7, for instance, are now nearing the end of their fourth month in orbit, but have done little more than repeat experiments.
Even though Lenoir and Allen failed to take their planned space walk on this flight, American astronauts have logged 265 hours outside their orbiting spacecraft, which is believed to be 10 times what Soviet cosmonauts have.
Time spent space walking is more significant than time spent in space, experts say, because it stretches the learning curve of men in orbit and enables them to build to the point where they will begin to do real work in orbit.
In fact, on the 11th flight of the space shuttle in 1984, astronauts will walk in space to help deploy a satellite and on their 13th flight will retrieve a damaged satellite from orbit and attempt to repair it to restore it to service.