By sending an Asian cosmonaut into space during the Moscow Olympic Games, the Kremlin is making a clear bid for support and prestige in the third world. Western sources here look for yet another launch during the games. They expect the latest crew, made up of a Soviet commander and Vietnamese Air Force Lt. Col. Pham Tuan, to come down and then a second two-man crew, possibly including a Romanian or Cuban cosmonaut, to go up.
Sources have long been speculating a space spectacular of some kind timed to coincide with the Olympics, but the latest launch surprised them on two counts.
First, they expected it in time for the opening ceremonies of the games July 19. An unmanned Progress 10 cargo craft left the orbiting Salyut 6 space station July 18 after helping adjust the Salyut into a new orbit more suitable for receiving a new manned capsule.
Sources assume the latest launch was delayed for several days by technical difficulties. The faces of the two Russians who have been orbiting in Salyut since April 9, Leonid Popov and Valery Ryumin, were flashed onto the huge scoreboards in Lenin Stadium July 19, with a message from them wishing athletes and visitors "cosmic good health."
Second, sources here believed the latest launch would carry a Romanian cosmonaut into orbit rather than a Vietnamese.
Earlier, in the Soviet intercosmos program, a cosmonaut from Czechoslovakia became the first non-Russian, non-American to fly in space. Subsequent two-man teams, all commanded by Russians, included cosmonaut-engineers from East Germany , Poland, Bulgaria, and Hungary.
That left Vietnamese, Romanian, Mongolian, Cuban, and Indian cosmonauts still in training in the "star city" space center near Moscow. Sources here expected that another East European would go up at this time.
But they speculate that the Vietnamese was preferred because he is Asian and thus makes more news than would another East European -- especially since one object of the Olympic Games here is to cement Soviet influence in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Also, Romania has been critical of some Soviet policies in recent years -- especially on the Middle East and Afghanistan -- and may have lost out as result.
The technical details of the July 23 launch seemed routine. As usual, they were not released by the news agency Tass until the Soyuz 37 spacecraft was safely in orbit. Controllers then felt confident enough to announce via Tass that veteran Soviet pilot Viktor Gorbatko (making his third flight) and Lt. Col. Pham Tuan would dock with Salyut 6 and work with Popov and Ryumin.
Word of the launch was circulated among East European correspondents in Moscow well before it was announced by Tass and apparently well before the actual launch, indicating even more confidence that all would go well.
Vietnam is Moscow's main ally in Asia. It plays a key role in Soviet plans to contain both Chinese and US influence. Vietnamese party leaders have just been here to give medals to the Soviet leadership and to receive medals in return. Moscow consistently supports Vietnamese claims that China was behind the recent clashes on the Thai-Cambodian border.
It is doubtful, however, whether many Asians will be impressed by the space launch of a Vietnamese. Throughout the Association of Southeast Asian Nations -- Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, and Indonesia -- there is deep distrust of Vietnamese expansionism, armed strength, and Soviet backing.
The latest launch demonstrates the lengths to which the Kremlin will go to try to retain Vietnamese support and to which Vietnam will go to take whatever technological aid it can get from the Soviets. Yet diplomats here doubt that the Vietnamese belong solely to the Soviet camp. They see them as capable of playing strategic diplomacy in their own way, balancing off as many sides as they can.
Undoubtedly, sources believe, the latest joint space flight has a military side to it. Hanoi is eager to learn all it can about space surveillance and weaponry.