Although they receive relatively little attention in the West, the Soviets continue to set manned space flight records. The safe return of Cosmonauts Anatoly Berezovoy and Valentin Lebedev after an unprecedented 211 days in orbit is only the latest impressive achievement.
It is becoming increasingly clear in both the Soviet and US programs that the adaptation of humans to weightlessness is one of the most significant unsolved space flight problems. Frequent incidents of vertigo and so-called motion sickness continue to baffle medical experts. Questions of subtle, possibly degenerative bodily changes during prolonged weightlessness remain unanswered.
While both programs now give priority attention to motion problems, only the Soviets are gaining the experience to deal with the other challenge. This is a major reason why the long-playing Salyut missions represent an important line of space flight progress. They are tackling what may well be a basic obstacle on the road to outer space as well as establishing an ability to maintain a permanent manned presence in Earth orbit.
The Salyut-7 space station, even more than its predecessor Salyut-6, is showing how far along the Soviets are toward that goal. Unmanned resupply craft and Soyuz T-7 space ships carrying visiting cosmonauts come and go with ease. These visitors now have included the second woman to go into space - Svetlana Savitskaya.
Meanwhile, the United States still is uncertain where it should go in terms of manned space flight. While the reusable shuttle is becoming operational, there is disagreement among both military and civilian space experts as to its ultimate value. Is it a cost-saving workhorse or a white elephant?
The issue of who should operate it remains unanswered. Should it be the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), whose officials prefer to remain in the research and development business; a new agency; or private enterprise? Should the Air Force have its own shuttles to avoid militarization of NASA, which was established by law as a civilian agency?
Also, it should be noted that neither NASA officials nor Air Force generals feel comfortable with the four-shuttle fleet to which they now are limited. Many of them disagree with presidential science adviser George Key-worth who says that this provides adequate redundancy should one shuttle be lost.
The Reagan administration needs to get its manned space flight policy together so that the US program can have a strong sense of direction. A continuing commitment to well-defined long-term goals certainly seems to be one of the strengths of the Soviet program.
The NASA leadership would like to have the US commit itself also to establishing a space station. Dr. Keyworth says he can't see the value of this goal without knowing exactly what needs such a station would meet. ''What will we do with a space station?'' he asks. There may be wisdom in this skepticism. Yet one is tempted to reply, ''Watch the Soviets, and they may show you.''