25 years later, Moscow remembers: 'Sputnik was first'

''Sure I remember the Sputnik launch,'' recounts a trim, gray-haired gentleman outside a Moscow hardware store. ''I was doing my army service then, and the radio suddenly said the world's first artificial satellite had been launched.

''Then, to everyone's surprise, it sank in that it was we Soviets, not the Americans, who had done it!

''You know, at that moment I felt something tugging in my chest, a real patriotic feeling. And I am not the kind of man who usually feels such things.''

Twenty-five years and hundreds of blast-offs later, the Oct. 4, 1957, launch of a small beeping object dubbed Sputnik I still exerts an emotional tug on ordinary Russians that more recent Soviet space feats can't match.

For Americans, Sputnik meant panic, the starting gun in a full-fledged superpower race for space. For Russians, it summoned up a mix of pride, surprise , and excitement.

''It was something nobody was really expecting,'' explains a corpulent, crew-cut man lolling outside a shoeshine stall. ''And it was the first . . . not like today, when there always seems to be some cosmonaut or other in orbit.''

Only one other Soviet space triumph seems to compete: the orbital flight four years later that made Yuri Gagarin the world's first man in space. Perhaps a few American feats do: the moon landings and the first shuttle flight. Invariably the joint Soviet-US docking mission of 1975 is mentioned.

''I can't understand,'' says the man at the shoeshine booth, ''why there have never been more joint missions. That would be good for everyone.''

Sputnik's anniversary falls at a time when further such cooperative ventures seem unlikely. The space race is very much alive. Yet at the quarter century mark, the Soviet and American programs have shifted from their earlier tit-for-tat competition to pursuit of different short-term goals.

Some experts say Washington and Moscow both aim to assemble a large permanent space station. But for now, the Americans are concentrating on their shuttle program; the Soviets want to start actual assembly of an orbital space complex with separately launched ''modules.''

Each superpower, too, has a lead in particular aspects of the space race. The Americans have landed men on the moon and have pioneered the reusable spacecraft. The Soviets have chalked up more man-hours in space, many of them aboard the small Salyut orbital station, and have kept one crew aloft for a record 185 days.

With much official fanfare, Moscow has orbited two female cosmonauts and undertaken a series of flights including foreign passengers, most recently Frenchman Jean-Loup Chretien.

Some diplomats here suspect the Soviets may time a new space mission for Sputnik's anniversary: for instance, the blast-off of an operational ''space module'' to link with the Salyut-7 orbital station, as a follow-up to a test version launched last year. Or Moscow may simply signal the current crew aboard Salyut to stay aloft a few more weeks to break the existing space endurance record.

Yet for the Sputnik generation, the launch of the world's first artificial satellite will remain something special.

There are, on any Moscow sidewalk, those who do not remember. ''Sputnik?'' asks one young woman house-painter. ''Wasn't that when Gagarin went up?''

A younger woman says simply, ''This is the first time I've heard of this Sputnik launching.'' A group of small boys in the uniform of the young communist Pioneer organization delivers a meticulously accurate account of the first Sputnik mission, but the words seem more recited than felt.

''There is just no way to describe the feeling of realizing that tiny satellite - it was very small, you know - was going beep, beep, beep around the world,'' says the crew-cut man near the shoeshine stall.

The gray-haired man who recalls having heard of Sputnik's launch as an Army recruit says the excitement he felt is hard to imagine today: ''Space flight has become so routine. . . .''

Nearby, another Muscovite, soft-spoken and bespectacled, pauses before declaring what Sputnik means to him:

''I admire your American technology, for instance, the space shuttle. But Sputnik was the very first step, when most people thought our country could not achieve ahead of the Americans.

''It is a little like in 1960, when the American spy plane was shot down over our territory. . . . No one thought we had that kind of missile.''

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