THE Soviets' smooth exchange of crew members when an ailing cosmonaut had to return prematurely from their Mir space station last week illustrates the Soviet Union's current spaceflight mastery. The United States may have been first to the moon and first to explore the outer planets. But it is the Soviets who lead in launch capability, space station experience, and continuity of space exploration with their ongoing planetary program.
For the moment at least, the Soviets' tortoiselike space program slowly but steadily is winning the race for overall competence against the dash and delay of NASA's hare.
There is a lesson here for the US as it struggles to get its space program going again.
The Soviets have never let disappointment or tragedy cripple their effort. When they lost the moon race, they concentrated on earth orbital flight. When a succession of planetary probes failed in the 1960s and '70s, they persevered until, now, they're leading international teams in exploration of Venus and Mars. When they lost cosmonauts in spacecraft accidents, they investigated and corrected faults and headed back into orbit.
No one part of the Soviet space program is so dependent on another part that catastrophic failure can halt the entire enterprise. This is especially true of launch vehicles. Although the Soviets are now testing a new heavy-lift rocket, they have a fleet of reliable workhorse rockets for launching satellites, cosmonauts, and interplanetary probes. These come off the production lines with such regularity that no Soviet space program is hostage to a launch vehicle shortage.
In short, the Soviets know what they want to do in space. They don't share their strategic thinking with the world. But to judge from appearances, their goal is to attain a general competence in all aspects of spaceflight. This gives their program a continuity that, in the long run, pays off handsomely.
The US, by contrast, has never known what it wanted to do in space. The Apollo program, for all its magnificence, had a show-'em-we-can-do-it political goal that led nowhere. The shuttle was developed and promoted as a general-delivery, earth-to-orbit truck. But there was no overarching objective to define its missions. Trying to use it as the sole US launch vehicle was a ploy to give the shuttle some purpose - a ploy that proved to be a costly mistake.
Given the achievements of its space program and the effort and money put into it, the United States should have as strong an overall spaceflight competence as does the Soviet Union. But without a clearer mission, that program has lacked the continuity and direction needed to develop such competence.
There is a critical need for the administration, working with the Congress, to define such a purpose. The presidentially appointed National Commission on Space laid out the options in its report last year. Former astronaut Sally Ride will soon give the NASA administrator an evaluation of several of these options, exploring leadership objectives and strategies to meet them. This should help NASA respond to the commission's report.
The Ride report will evaluate dramatic goals such as a permanent lunar base or an expedition to Mars. But the general objective will be to build a long-term competence that will enable the United States to carry out any specific purpose in space that future needs require.
The lessons of Soviet achievement and of NASA's past are clear. A start-stop space program with no guiding strategy is futile. The Reagan administration owes it to the country - and to itself - to establish such an enduring strategy before it leaves office.