Moscow — The chief sewer-worker in our neighborhood draped one gangly arm over each of his colleagues, beamed, and announced: "On behalf of our entire work brigade, I would like to congratulate the American astronauts of the Columbia space shuttle."
"Well done, America," chimed in a young secretary on her way to work. "Good luck on your further space missions."
The Kremlin doesn't seem to feel that way at all.
Detente, which facilitated a joint US-Soviet space venture six years ago, is as strained in outer space as it is on earth.
A dispatch carried by the official Soviet Communist newspaper Pravda April 15 reported the shuttle's safe landing but coupled this with charges that the US program's primary aims were military. It was in keeping with the tone of coverage here throughout the mission.
Moscow Radio said that by the mid-1980s, "The space shuttles are to be used only for the purposes . . . [of] launching military satellites."
This kind of talk, sometimes citing US newspaper reports for support, is especially powerful in a nation as ravaged by past wars as is this one.
"If the shuttle's purposes are peaceful, . . ." is the way some Muscovites prefaced otherwise glowing tributes to the mission's success.
A young man with a bushy moustache and a soiled work smock kneaded his leathery hands for warmth. Moscow spring, valiantly alive for almost two weeks now, had been briefly chased underground by a bout of hail.
"The US space mission? Ah, you mean Columbia . . . the shuttle. . . . Yes, of course I've been following it.
"You know, I'm not competent to judge these things. But if it really is for the military, that's terrible.
"Here I am working, surviving, from day to day, and they're preparing weapons for outer space. . . . That wouldn't be right."
A woman hunched over a cane reached inside a tattered shopping bag and said: "American?
"You are like us, you like to smile and talk. Here, have a real Russian cake. I baked it myself.
"The shuttle? Well, my husband, and we've been married for many years, used to be a test pilot during the war. I hate aviation. I remember the waiting, not knowing whether he would be fine. . . .
"I was all for the space program. But now that it is going to be military, I am disgusted."
Still, generally, the accent was on congratulation.
"I don't believe this stuff about the military," said a neatly uniformed taxi dispatcher. "Astronauts are peaceful men." Then, after a pause:
"You know, the shuttle took off, stayed in space, and then it landed. . . . Amazing!"
"It's very good," said a young woman nearby. "I hope now we can get back into the spirit of Soyuz-Apollo," the 1975 Soviet-US effort.
Even with the Soviets' moderately successful jamming of foreign radio broadcasts, Moscow sidewalks sound different than Pravda or Moscow Radio.
"I am happy, very happy, that the flight succeeded," said a burly, bundled woman on her way to work, an hour of shopping, then back to work again.
"By the way," she added in a whisper, "is it true the Shostakoviches are staying in the West?"
It is, it seems, true that the son and grandson of the famed Russian composer sought asylum April 11. But the Soviet news media had yet to say so.