Moscow — While the US still pushes its space shuttle toward the launching pad, the Soviet Union piles up more and more flying hours in space, trying for a permanent space station in orbit and brighter political prestige here on earth.
Now that the two cosmonauts who broke the space flight record are said to be recuperating well after their landing Oct. 12, attention here turns to Mongolian and Romanian cosmonauts in training for future flights.
They are part of an elaborate program to impress Soviet allies and the third world. So far a Czechoslovakian, an East German, a Pole, a Bulgarian, a Hungarian, a Vietnamese, and a Cuban cosmonaut have made brief flights with Soviet commanders.
Two trainee spacemen from France arrived here in September to train for a flight 18 months to two years from now. This is under a joint program that is part of a Soviet effort to capitalize on French unhappiness with Washington and to tap French engineering expertise.
Talks also continue on whether Indian cosmonauts will undergo training. Meanwhile Soviet and Indian officials cooperate on a joint unmanned satellite program.
Soviet officials insist their overall space program is forging ahead on the basis of superior Soviet engineering. In fact, Soviet launch rockets are still smaller than US ones, and the Soviets' own space shuttle program is lagging.
The system they use for getting to and from their veteran Salyut 6 space station is old-fashioned compared to the US shuttle.
But, as Soviet officials say, the Soviet program is working, while the American program, more successful in the past, is still reaching for a new level of sophistication.
And the Soviets never tire of telling the third world that the Vietnamese cosmonaut in July was the first Asian in space, while the Cuban who has just flown was the first Latin American.
But the Soviet effort is not just political.
It is amassing experience about the effects of space flight on the human body. There are difficulties in readjusting to the gravity of earth, but Soviet officials insist that none of the effects of prolonged flights are irreversible.
The program is widening Soviet photography of the USSR and other countries, studying natural resources on earth, and seeing how successfully alloys industry can be made in weightless conditions.
Westerners here assume the Salyut program has some military applications as well, but no details are available.
Soviet scientists claim to have overcome many of the problems of extremely long flights.
The two men just landed, Valery Ryumin and Leonid Popov, exercised on what the news agency Tass called a "mini-stadium."
Three sets of visitors, and two Soviet cosmonauts testing a new Soyuz space capsule, helped relieve boredom. The new Model T capsule approached the level of US capsules in the 1960s: on board were computers and solar panel "wings" to soak up energy.
The Soviets also used an unmanned capsule, the "Progress," to ferry up fresh food and newspapers as well as tools, air supplies, and other necessities.
A decision must now be made on how long the Salyut space station can stay in orbit. It has been circling the earth for about three years. Tass says four main crews have worked on it, and eight more have visited it for short periods.
Whereas the US shuttle can be used over and over again, each Soviet capsule is used for only one round trip to and from Salyut. But Moscow clearly believes the enormous expense to be worthwhile for prestige, for scientific research, and for possible military applications in surveillance, and such fields as satellites that kill other satellites.