Washington — The evolving story of Korean Air Lines Flight 7 reveals the growing importance of space-based navigation and intelligence systems and the superpower race to achieve this new ''high ground.''
Moscow says the United States was using the South Korean 747 jumbo jet to trigger Soviet air defense radars so that a passing US satellite could monitor them for intelligence purposes. US officials deny this. But the charge seems a natural response to American officials' assertions that they don't need civilian airliners to do their sleuth work, since satellites are so much better.
According to officials here, the Soviets are behind in their satellite sophistication. This is one reason they launch many more than the US for military purposes. At the same time, the US is more reliant than the Soviets on satellites for the command and control of weapons and forces as well as intelligence gathering. This adds to Soviet anxiety about US intelligence satellites, which can almost pick out a fly in a bowl of borsch from hundreds of miles up and regularly pass over the most sensitive and secret Soviet military bases.
In Washington, the episode has set off a search for causes of the aircraft's wandering so far off course and ways to prevent future occurrences. According to Federal Aviation Administration and airline officials, the inertial navigation system used on many airliners is highly reliable. It has an average drift rate of about 1 nautical mile per hour, far less than the 310 miles KAL Flight 7 strayed over several hours. Officials and aviation experts say pilot laxity is most likely the major cause, if not a principal contributing factor in this case.
Capt. Henry Duffy, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, told a congressional subcommittee this week that errors in programming navigation systems ''in the majority of cases can be directly attributed to the human-factors problems associated with long-haul international flights . . . spending several hours in a cockpit in a 'monitoring role' while fatigue sets the stage for errors.''
The search for preventive measures is focusing on the Air Force's new Global Positioning System (GPS), which could have vast civil transport implications as well as dramatically increase US military capabilities.
Stationed 11,000 miles above Earth, this grid of 18 satellites, dubbed ''Navstar,'' will allow ships, aircraft, and even individual soldiers to: position themselves anywhere on or above the earth's surface within a few meters; check time within microseconds; and measure speed to within less than one kilometer per hour. Like shooting the stars in celestial navigation, this will provide an extremely accurate external check on internal navigation systems now generally relied on over long routes.
''With this satellite constellation, an aircraft will be able to locate itself anywhere in the world, 24 hours a day,'' said Loren De Groot of Rockwell International, which is building the Navstar satellites for the Air Force. Mr. De Groot was the navigator on a recent test flight in which a business jet flew from Iowa to the Paris Air Show. Using the six GPS satellites already in place, the aircraft flew across the Atlantic and then stopped within 26 feet of its assigned target spot on the airport ramp.
Current plans call for Navstar to provide two-dimensional coverage by 1987 and global three-dimensional coverage the following year.
In a recent letter to President Reagan, Sen. Charles H. Percy (R) of Illinois noted that partial Navstar coverage along the Great Circle route from North America to the Orient could begin next year. He also said the cost of on-board receivers for this ''virtual fail-safe navigation system'' would be about $7,000 , far less than current navigation systems.
Senator Percy and others are urging the Air Force to accelerate the GPS program, and also asking the Pentagon not to impose a user fee on civil aircraft , since the full complement of satellites will be launched and maintained in any case. Mr. Reagan recently said Navstar facilities will be made available to civilian aircraft, but Air Force officials hesitate to accelerate the program.
''I'm not sure we can get it any quicker than we can now,'' said one officer at the Pentagon. ''We're working at what we think is an optimum schedule.'' The Air Force is also researching ''over the horizon'' radar, which could track aircraft beyond the current 165-mile range, as well as the use of satellites to broadcast aircraft position reports back to ground stations.
A Defense Department official told lawmakers this week that GPS will ''greatly benefit the civil sector across a wide spectrum of potential applications,'' but that it will also have a ''dramatic impact on our ability to conduct military operations.''
As with the US space shuttle, the line between military and civil application of satellites is becoming blurred. And this makes it easier for the charges and countercharges over intelligence gathering and flights like KAL 7 to fly.