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Soviet space effort set for `quantum jump'. Early failures have yielded to success, boosting program's confidence

By Robert C. CowenStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 9, 1986



Houston

Space-station planner Carl Shelley leans across a scale drawing of NASA's ``dream house'' and admits that the Russians have made ``an impressive start.'' Their Mir (peace) space station is the way to go, he says, ``at this point in time.'' He adds, ``I think they can permanently occupy it. It certainly is the first step [in developing the orbital frontier].''

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Twenty-five years after Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit Earth, 29 years after a Soviet rocket launched the world's first man-made moon, the Soviets are indeed ``poised for a technological quantum jump and a renaissance in the exploration and exploitation of space,'' says analyst Nicholas I. Johnson of Teledyne Brown Engineering in his annual review of the Soviet program.

Their permanently manned space station is becoming operational. This year may bring flight tests of their space shuttle. They are also developing a lightweight space plane to ferry cosmonauts to and from orbit. They have begun a new, ambitious program of unmanned space exploration that includes sampling the moons of Mars. They have a new civilian agency to disentangle some of their space effort from their military program. This could lead to greater commercial activity and international cooperation.

It wasn't always thus.

Fifteen years ago last Friday, a three-man crew headed for orbit to inaugurate Salyut 1, the Soviets' first space station. The USSR had lost the race to the moon, partly through its own technical failures. A massive rocket explosion cut short a mission July 3, 1969, that many Western analysts think was meant to preempt the first American Apollo landing 17 days later.

More tragedy lay ahead.

The initial Salyut crewmen died on reentry when air leaked from their capsule. The next two space stations failed to orbit. The Soviets pressed on. They hid their failures from the rest of the world to the extent they could. But their persistence bore fruit.

They successfully fielded five stations with 21 different crews from 1974 to 1981. They were hosts to foreign cosmonauts, including guests from France and India. In 1982, an improved model, Salyut 7, took up orbital position. It was joined earlier this year by Mir -- a new design meant for permanent habitation.

Mir's capacity to grow by adding modules, its docking accommodation for several spacecraft, and other facilities led veteran Soviet-watcher James E. Oberg to declare: ``If earlier stations in the Salyut series were pioneering pathways, Mir is going to be a six-lane highway.

The Soviets have used their Salyut experience to develop automatic rendezvous and docking techniques. Unmanned freighters serve their space stations.

They also have gained insight into the human biology of extended weightlessness. One mission lasted 237 days. This is to say nothing of any secret military work.

Leonid Kazim and Vladimir Solovev, the current Mir crew, have shown that they can transfer from Mir to Salyut 7.

Recently, the two men worked outside to weld titanium-aluminum alloy parts into a 40-foot structure. It's the forerunner of bridge work to join separate space station modules.

The Soviets are equally dogged in unmanned exploration, in spite of numerous failures.