Atlantis Rises Again

November 21, 1990

Space shuttle Atlantis' Nov. 15 liftoff, flawless flight and Florida landing have proved that when it comes to military priorities, America's space program is back on track.

Atlantis' mission was a closely held military secret, but civilian observers speculated that the five officers aboard launched a spy satellite to look closely at deployments in the Persian Gulf. Then the mystery deepened. Amateur astronomers watched the satellite change colors, then it disappeared. Now its track is too far south to monitor the Gulf activity.

The dangerous hydrogen fuel leaks that grounded Atlantis in July were nowhere in evidence, and it is to be hoped that the book is closed on that frustrating series of delays, for Atlantis and for its sister ship, Columbia.

Last week's launch was the last secret military shuttle mission scheduled. Other military projects are waiting to go aloft on shuttles, but those are to be mixed-mission flights, with civilian National Aeronautics and Space Administration experiments on board, too. And there are plenty of civilian projects waiting on the ground.

One is the Astro-1 Observatory, still hanging around waiting for a good launcher 10 years after it was originally planned. Baltimore astronomer Sam Dorrance has trained for eight years to fly with Astro-1, and there are people at Johns Hopkins University whose entire careers have virtually been taken up with it. Astro-1, a three-telescope platform designed to be re-used, was bumped from the launch schedule five times this year alone. It was supposed to be on the next flight after the 1986 Challenger mission, but that disaster led to the years-long safety review and re-design of booster rockets. Astro-1's lift-off is now set for Dec. 2. Perhaps Astro-1's time has finally arrived.

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