Dramatic Rescue in Space

May 15, 1992

Astronauts on the shuttle Endeavour's maiden flight demonstrated the "right stuff" at 17,500 mph. They manhandled a 4 1/2 -ton Intelsat spacecraft into position, mated a custom-made "capture" bar to it and bolted on a booster rocket. It was the longest U.S. spacewalk and the first ever for three astronauts together, using tactics designed literally on the fly by the shuttle crew.

The feat demonstrated the adaptability of humans in space. But if the rescue vindicated the abiding faith at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the practicality of manned space missions, others questioned the cost. This satellite could have been replaced by a later launch at a price to the 122-nation International Telecommunications Satellite Organization much lower than the $1 billion this flight cost U.S. taxpayers. And the consortium will get its money back once the satellite reaches orbit 22,300 miles above Earth and starts handling 120,000 telephone circuits and three TV broadcasts.

This mission accomplished much for the public. The consortium had spent $270 million building and launching Intelsat, another $46 million for the new rocket booster and $8 million on support services. It would have taken two more years to fill its place in the global communications infrastructure, while a workable relay device languished in the way of other low-orbit vehicles. And the $93 million that Intelsat paid helped NASA defray costs of flying Endeavour. The skills of both the astronaut team and ground engineers were enhanced on this trip, a precursor to the much more ambitious assembly of Freedom Space Station.

NASA, under new direction at the behest of the White House-led National Space Council, has turned away from the shuttle fleet for many missions. But there are missions only the shuttle can accomplish. The space station, strongly backed by President Bush, would only be a pipe dream without a working shuttle fleet to ferry cargo and people to orbit. And once the station goes up, with working astronauts aboard and smaller orbital vehicles moving about it, space rescue or repair of wayward satellites is bound to become more frequent.

NASA sees in Endeavour's flight the "end" of the Challenger era, when space explorers labored under the sad shadow of seven astronauts' fiery demise and the quality of NASA's work was sorely questioned. Yet the tragic failure still reminds us how dangerous space work really is. Now Wednesday's success reminds us how high humanity can fly when the stakes are clearly understood and preparation truly worthy of the challenge.

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