For the first time in more than a decade, the Soviet Union broadcast live television pictures of the launch of a manned spacecraft. Soyuz T-15 roared skyward at 3:33 p.m., Moscow time, piercing the clear blue sky above the launch pad in Soviet Central Asia.
There was no explanation as to why the Soviets lifted the shroud of secrecy that normally surrounds spacecraft launchings and no indication of how long the new approach would last.
Tass, the official Soviet news agency, said the spacecraft's on-board systems were functioning normally, as it headed for a Saturday link-up with a Soviet space station in near-Earth orbit.
The craft is piloted by two men who hold the world endurance record in space, Air Force Col. Leonid Kizim and Vladimir Solovyov, deputy mission director of the Soviet space agency's mission control center.
The two will be the first humans on board the ``Mir'' space station, which was launched Feb. 20. The Soviets have long been working toward the goal of a permanently manned station in space, and the latest launch may well be a significant step toward that goal.
The exact motivation for allowing live coverage is, however, unclear. It could be part of an ongoing campaign to point up Soviet accomplishments, both in space and on Earth. The last three weeks have seen saturation coverages of the 27th Communist Party Congress and of the successful Soviet mission that transmitted back the first television pictures from Halley's comet.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's has, after all, been demanding that the Soviet media display more initiative and forthrightness in their reporting.
Normally, spacecraft launches are not mentioned here until after the vehicles are already in orbit. Failures -- and there have been some serious ones -- are usually never mentioned at all. In 1960, for example, when the head of the Soviet strategic rocket forces was killed in a launch-pad explosion, his obituary merely noted that he had perished in a `plane crash.' The deaths of dozens of other top Soviet space scientists killed in the same accident was entirely withheld.
In contrast, the Soyuz T-15 launch was announced by Tass in advance. Radio Moscow carried coverage on its international frequencies. It was carried nationwide on Soviet television, and sent out worldwide via satellite. But no Western journalists were allowed to observe the liftoff.
Although most Muscovites went about their daily activities, the coverage surprised many here. One Muscovite said the coverage was as interesting as the launch itself.
Some Western Kremlin-watchers here speculated that Soviet authorities could not resist the opportunity of publicly juxtaposing images of their successful launch with America's mournful task of salvaging fragments of its spacecraft.
However, beyond expressing their regrets, Soviet officials have made few comments about the Challenger disaster. Any effort to exploit the tragedy -- even subtly -- would meet with widespread condemnation, both here and abroad.
Another perhaps more likely explanation is that the mission is a benchmark in the Soviet effort to colonize space. The Soyuz T-15 may eventually form the core of the world's first permanently manned station.
The Soviets might also be pointing up their own avowed dedication to ``peaceful'' space exploration, even as the Reagan administration presses ahead with research on a space-based Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), or ``star wars.''
Or they could be responding to President Reagan's pointed remark, in his address to the nation after the Challenger disaster, that the American space program was conducted ``in the open,'' with its failures as well as its successes in public view.