MAPPING MISSION

MAPPING MISSION

he space shuttle Endeavour made a perfect landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida this week after a successful mission. It was the kind of event that doesn't raise too many eyebrows in America any more. But this one should.

The job of the shuttle and its six-astronaut crew was to map much of the planet Earth. And it did that - with precision that was almost as remarkable as the breadth of the job and the speed with which it was accomplished.Using two radar antennas, the Endeavour mapped most of the planet. It measured nearly every significant feature on the earth's surface - mapping 46 million square miles of land masses - at least once, and many of them twice. It did the job despite a technical difficulty that complicated the work and burned up far more fuel than planned. And it did it all over the course of an 11-day voyage.

Compare that with the work of another vessel named the Endeavour more than two centuries ago. A 98-foot-long sailing ship that had hauled coal for four years, it was sent out in 1768 by the Royal Society and the British Admiralty on the first scientific expedition to the Pacific Ocean. Its commander was a seaman named James Cook.

The Endeavour headed to Tahiti to observe and chart the transit of the planet Venus across the face of the Sun. Then it explored the vast Pacific, discovering and charting New Zealand and successfully navigating the Great Barrier Reef off the Austalian coast. The Endeavour's tools included sextants, but it didn't even have a chronometer.

Or consider another seaman more than 250 years before that: Amerigo Vespucci, whose name eventually tagged both continents of the Western Hemisphere. Vespucci is widely known for his explorations in the New World. But he also is credited with coming up with a way to determine longitude with a fair degree of accuracy. Before him, it was figured by dead reckoning, a traditional arithmetical system one step up from a seat-of-the-pants approach.

In short, mapping for centuries has been a long, tedious affair, as well as an often-perilous one. And because of the limitations of information-gathering, inaccuracies have been part of it. Even after aerial photography came into use following World War II and gave the world a better, much more comprehensive look at itself, the picture was far from perfect.

The space shuttle Endeavour and its 11-day mission have sharply changed that. Only 2 percent to 3 percent of the planet's surface has been mapped with the high degree of resolution that NASA aimed for on this effort.

It will take a year or more to process the 330 digital cassettes full of information - enough data to fill 20,000 compact disks - that the Endeavour brought back. But the result is expected to be the most detailed and comprehensive topographic maps that have ever been made.

To be sure, the best and most accurate products of the effort will be used by the intelligence community and are likely to stay classified; after all, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, which serves U.S. defense and intelligence units, was NASA's partner in the mission.

But much of the effort will still be able to be made public. And the gains in information and technology will ultimately benefit global navigation, geography and geology.

The blase public reaction notwithstanding, NASA, the mapping agency and the shuttle crew deserve credit for a voyage of discovery for the new century.