Soviet-French space shot
Moscow — Two Soviets, one Frenchman, and a superpower propaganda battle have blasted into space only days before the final test flight of the American space shuttle.
Although the French have warned Moscow not to seek to make propaganda hay from this first East-West venture in manned flight in seven years - and the first launch of a French spaceman ever - it is still likely to be portrayed by the Soviets as a ''peaceful'' foil to an American campaign to ''militarize'' space.
Such a move by Moscow will be particularly tempting in light of the recent US announcement of a new Air Force command unit for space matters, and the scheduled launch late this month of the first US shuttle toting a Defense Department payload.
Diplomats here also assume the Soviets will choose publicly to remind the outside world of their 1981 proposal to ban all military activity in the great beyond - a draft treaty shrugged off by the Americans as a Kremlin move to undo the shuttle program after having tested a Soviet ''hunter-killer'' satellite.
Soviet officials, in turn, shrug off Western intelligence reports on the antisatellite tests as pure fiction.
The joint Soviet-French mission, which got under way from a burst of orange and white flame from a remote Central Asian launch site June 24, carries another potential public-relations bonus for the Kremlin. Worldwide coverage of the mission could help turn back the international eclipse of recent Soviet space efforts by the Americans' shuttle program.
Just as former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing's summit meeting with President Leonid Brezhnev, on the heels of the Soviet troop move into Afghanistan, was welcome here even though it produced no substantive results, so the very fact of the joint Soviet-French space mission is important despite avowed French misgivings about going ahead with it.
The French have added the footnote that they still don't like martial law in Poland or the Soviet military move in Afghanistan. But the joint space venture has gone ahead - the first such East-West teamwork since the 1975 Soyuz-Apollo launch.
The Soviet news agency Tass, interrupting its buildup to the Soviet-French launch with a lengthy dispatch June 23, assaulted the formation of a US air space command, adding:
''The Soviet Union has always relied . . . on the development of cooperation among all countries in the peaceful exploration and use of outer space. The United States joined in its effort in this field only for a short while, when it agreed to the joint 'Soyuz-Apollo' experiment.
''Now these times seem to be a remote past'' on the American side.
On French insistence, the latest joint venture has so far lacked much of the orchestrated political hoopla of the Soyuz-Apollo mission. The French sent no officials to witness the launch, stressing their contention that the mission, conceived in the brighter East-West climate of 1973, is one of purely scientific , not political, cooperation. French sources say Moscow has been told if it goes too far in countermanding this principle, senior officials in Paris will be ready with a prompt public slap to put things right.
Still, space flights have been political acts since the first Sputnik blasted off. Oddly enough, the main question surrounding the current mission may be which side, French or Soviet, will trumpet the largest amount of national pride over it.
The French have coined a name for their participant: ''spationaute,'' since ''cosmonaut'' sounds too Russian and ''astronaut'' smacks of Uncle Sam. Some French sources here have come very close to suggesting that the joint venture is , in fact, a French one with incidental Soviet passengers.
But in the end, the consensus is likely to be that cooperation is a good thing, in this case combining a package of French experimental equipment with enormous Soviet experience in manned orbital flight. No matter how carefully words are chosen, this is a message the Kremlin is likely to enjoy endorsing.
The message came over strongly in an almost lyrical pre-launch special on Soviet television, including the first live shot of a Soviet launch since the Soyuz-Apollo mission.