Shuttle Discovery's successful Ulysses mission ended five months of frustration for the U.S. space program, but it marked only the first step on an incredibly long trip -- in space and on the ground.
Discovery, the workhorse among NASA's three usable orbiters, returned safely from a near-perfect mission. But its passenger, the European Space Agency's Ulysses explorer, has half a billion miles to go to execute a tricky "slingshot" swing around Jupiter, the solar system's largest planet, before it reaches its real workstation near the sun. Moreover, NASA still hasn't found the cause of fuel-leak problems that have kept shuttles Columbia and Atlantis on the ground for five months.
NASA's problems continue, but the frustrations cannot dim the joy of seeing a shuttle payload finally launched. The Europeans, long upset over U.S. cuts that eliminated Ulysses' backup solar orbiter and over a seven-year mission delay, now have reasons to cheer.
Well they might, for there are enough problems to go around. Arianespace, NASA's commercial competitor, is often seen as a model of efficiency, but a costly blunder by its French backers calls that into question. After a bad misjudgment, the 13-nation European space consortium had to take out a $391-million emergency loan to keep its Ariane 5 heavy-lift launch program on course. In Germany, infrastructure rebuilding has such a high price tag that observers now question how well that reunited nation can support its ambitious space goals, despite assurances. And Soviet cosmonauts damaged a Mir space station hatch during a July spacewalk, bending its hinges so badly it initially could not be shut. Now the Soviets have deferred plans to repair the hatch, despite reports it will not seal.
Beside providing launch services for Ulysses, the United States also has responsibility for deep-space tracking and has several scientific instruments aboard. The $750-million, five-year mission is the first attempt to study the sun from a polar orbit, and no one knows exactly what it will find. Swinging from a low point of 130 million miles to a high point 500 million miles from the sun's surface, Ulysses will make the first comprehensive solar measurements. The successful launch of this joint shuttle project helps restore, for the moment, some credibility to the beleaguered American space program.