Space-station planner Carl Shelley leans across a scale drawing of NASA's ``dream house'' and admits that the Russians have made ``an impressive start.'' Their Mir (peace) space station is the way to go, he says, ``at this point in time.'' He adds, ``I think they can permanently occupy it. It certainly is the first step [in developing the orbital frontier].''
Twenty-five years after Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit Earth, 29 years after a Soviet rocket launched the world's first man-made moon, the Soviets are indeed ``poised for a technological quantum jump and a renaissance in the exploration and exploitation of space,'' says analyst Nicholas I. Johnson of Teledyne Brown Engineering in his annual review of the Soviet program.
Their permanently manned space station is becoming operational. This year may bring flight tests of their space shuttle. They are also developing a lightweight space plane to ferry cosmonauts to and from orbit. They have begun a new, ambitious program of unmanned space exploration that includes sampling the moons of Mars. They have a new civilian agency to disentangle some of their space effort from their military program. This could lead to greater commercial activity and international cooperation.
It wasn't always thus.
Fifteen years ago last Friday, a three-man crew headed for orbit to inaugurate Salyut 1, the Soviets' first space station. The USSR had lost the race to the moon, partly through its own technical failures. A massive rocket explosion cut short a mission July 3, 1969, that many Western analysts think was meant to preempt the first American Apollo landing 17 days later.
More tragedy lay ahead.
The initial Salyut crewmen died on reentry when air leaked from their capsule. The next two space stations failed to orbit. The Soviets pressed on. They hid their failures from the rest of the world to the extent they could. But their persistence bore fruit.
They successfully fielded five stations with 21 different crews from 1974 to 1981. They were hosts to foreign cosmonauts, including guests from France and India. In 1982, an improved model, Salyut 7, took up orbital position. It was joined earlier this year by Mir -- a new design meant for permanent habitation.
Mir's capacity to grow by adding modules, its docking accommodation for several spacecraft, and other facilities led veteran Soviet-watcher James E. Oberg to declare: ``If earlier stations in the Salyut series were pioneering pathways, Mir is going to be a six-lane highway.
The Soviets have used their Salyut experience to develop automatic rendezvous and docking techniques. Unmanned freighters serve their space stations.
They also have gained insight into the human biology of extended weightlessness. One mission lasted 237 days. This is to say nothing of any secret military work.
Leonid Kazim and Vladimir Solovev, the current Mir crew, have shown that they can transfer from Mir to Salyut 7.
Recently, the two men worked outside to weld titanium-aluminum alloy parts into a 40-foot structure. It's the forerunner of bridge work to join separate space station modules.
The Soviets are equally dogged in unmanned exploration, in spite of numerous failures.
Their Venus missions include several landings on a planet whose sizzling surface would melt lead. Now they plan a twin spacecraft mission to Mars. And they're inviting the international scientific community to join them.
There's an openness about the Soviet space science program these days that impresses Western observers.
Speaking of the European Space Agency's Giotto mission, which intercepted Halley's comet in March, Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society, says, ``The NASA-Soviet-ESA Pathfinder project to target ESA's Giotto probe using Soviet pictures and NASA tracking was hailed . . . as the finest example of international cooperation ever.''
Speaking of Soviet space science, he adds: ``There's confidence. They talk about what they're doing. There's a lot of innovation. There's also a lot of laissez-faire. They say, `If you're anywhere in the world and you have a good idea, tell me about it and I'll try to get you on the spacecraft.' They're making private deals all over the world, including deals with US scientists.''
There's no formal US-Soviet space treaty any more. Such cooperation as there is must be arranged informally or on an ad hoc basis -- as in the case of the Halley mission and in the exchange of planetary and space biology data. Two years ago, President Reagan signed a law committing the United States to seek larger cooperation in space with the Soviets. Little has come of this so far. The Soviets stumble over the US Strategic Defense Initiative antiballistic-missile program. American space experts keep hoping that something can be worked out at a Reagan-Gorbachev summit.
The Soviet space program is well staffed and aggressively funded. The congressional Office of Technology Assessment estimates that its various programs employ some 600,000 people, about four times the US space work force. Its 1984 budget ran to some $23 billion or 1.5 to 2 percent of Soviet gross national product. That compares with $17.5 billion for the US civil and military space effort, about 0.5 percent of this country's GNP. NASA's $7.5 billion share represents only 0.2 percent of the GNP.
Neither US nor Soviet space officials speak of racing these days. According to the Associated Press, Gen. Georgy T. Beregovoy, head of the Star City cosmonaut center, cut short a reporter's question as to which country was ahead after the Challenger disaster. He said each nation did certain things well.
Officials here at the Johnson Space Center, lead agency for the US shuttle program, warn against directly comparing the two programs. Each country follows its own road into space, they say.
For example, astronaut Bruce McCandless says he admires the Soviet program ``in that it meets their objectives and allows them to establish a permanent presence in space. It's impressive because it suits what they're doing.''
US space officials may not think the Soviets are 10 feet tall. But they are aware that cosmonauts are working several hundred miles out in space to open a new frontier for their country while the American space fleet is grounded. It's quite a challenge.
Sixth of 10 articles. Next: Competition from Europe and Asia.