PALMDALE, Calif. -- The space program, after a dazzling debut of men on the moon and robots on Mars, moved into the workhorse stage today with introduction of a half plane-half rocket that can make 100 trips into earth orbit and back.
The occasion was the rollout of the space shuttle orbiter '"Enterprise" from a hangar at this Mojave Desert plant of Rockwell International in a ceremony attended by top NASA and government officials.
The shuttle, which has most of the features of a conventional plane, will makes its first unmanned test flight piggyback on a 747 next February with the inaugural space test flights scheduled for the early 1980s.
Unlike the Apollo spacecraft, which splashed down in the ocean and were never used again, the shuttle is designed to land on solid ground.
I. L. Smith, Rockwell manager of the Palmdale facility, compared its advent to the transition in the pioneer days of aviation when the feats of Charles Lindbergh gave way to commercial flights culminating in today's great airlines.
"It might be said that it marks the termination of exploration of space and beginning of exploitation of space," Smith said. "It is going to make space pay off for us."
The black and white craft, whose markings make it look something like a horizontal penguin, will have the capability of taking into space scientists and laymen who will not have to undergo the rigors of astronaut training.
It also will act as sort of tow-repair truck, servicing weather, navigational and other satellites while they are in orbit. It will launch others, bring smaller ones back to earth and ferry passengers to sky labs.
Hosting the rollout today was NASA Director James C. Fletcher. Scheduled speakers were Sens. John Tunney. D- Calif., and Barry Goldwater, R- Ariz.. and Rep. Olin Teague, D- Tex., chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology.
The shuttle is not the forerunner of any joy rides in space for the public. It is far too expensive for that.
However, NASA director Fletcher has foreseen a time in which there may be "space colonies" on which as many as 10,000 people may inhabit orbiting craft in experiments made necessary by diminishing resources and room on earth.
The orbiter cannot go to the moon or any other planet but it could provide the transportation to such colonies.
The craft is composed of the Orbiter, two small rockets and an external liquid fuel tank which will be jettisoned after rocket launch, the first of which will be from Cape Canaveral.
On that occasion it will circle the earth 22 times with two pilots and glide to a landing on the vast dry salt lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.
Rockwell has been the prime contractor for the space shuttle but literally thousands of other firms participated in its con struction.