The New Soviet launch into space of a fighter pilot and a veteran design engineer is intended to boost Moscow's prestige as well as its scientific know-how.
According to Western experts here, the Soviet Union is eager to underscore its space expertise during the Moscow Olympic Games. It would like to have cosmonauts beam down messages while the games are in progress July 19 to Aug. 3.
The Soviets also have obligations to their East-bloc and other allies. In the past two years, Moscow has sent up Czech, Polish, East German, and Bulgarian cosmonauts, each with a Soviet commander. This year, Western sources believe, Moscow plans to launch Romanian, Cuban, Vietnamese, and Mongolian cosmonauts. These cosmonauts are currently training near Moscow.
The Kremlin sets great store on the worldwide impact of the Soviet space program. This is especially true now, when the United States is still preparing its shuttle program and the Soviets are the only country sending up cosmonauts to accumulate data on space flight and its effects on humans.
Moscow also has good scientific reasons to resume its manned earth-orbiting program.
The launch of pilot Leonid Popov and engineer Valery Ryumin April 9 is intended to let the two men link up with the Salyut 6 spacecraft. The space station has been in orbit for 2 1/2 years now, a little more than half the lifetime of the US Skylab, which hurtled back into the earth's atmosphere last year and sent debris flaming down onto parts of Australia.
The two men are expected to check out the Salyut station, which has been unmanned for 7 1/2 months. Last August, engineer Ryumin and pilot Vladimir Lyakhov returned to earth after establishing a world record for manned orbit: 175 days.
The Soviet program is aimed at prolonging Salyut's life in preparation for setting up laboratories in orbit, both to study the earth and to permit the eventual launch from orbit of manned probes into outer space.
Moscow has been sharing some of its research on how man reacts to long spaceflights with the US. Many eyes will be on engineer Ryumin now, since it was only seven and a half months ago that he was last in orbit.