The underreported efforts of the Soviet space program

HOW'S this for a lead item in the nightly news? Two workers on an orbiting space station await visitors from Earth when ground monitors discover one of the workers may have a heart problem. Unexpectedly, a visitor has to take that worker's place. Meanwhile, the world's biggest land- resource/ocean-survey satellite goes into orbit. Ground control teams have to inaugurate the new satellite and bring the ailing worker safely home. That's what happened during the last week of July in the Soviet space program. But, except for a few obscure items, you haven't heard much about it in the American media. Had this involved American astronauts and American satellites, it would have made the front pages and prime-time network news.

After the Challenger accident, American media were highly self-critical of their failure to keep the public informed about the problems within the United States space program. They are falling down just as badly in reporting the Soviet competition.

There have been some general assessments pointing up the fact that the Soviets have developed a formidable capacity in all aspects of manned and unmanned spaceflight. But there is little news reporting of the specific accomplishments that demonstrate this Soviet prowess.

It's a professional scandal. Not only does this neglect prevent the American people from developing an important perspective from which to view US space goals, it deprives them of some high drama.

For example, on March 31, a Soviet launch crew sent up Kvant - an astronomical observatory - to dock with the Soviet Mir space station. Disaster threatened when something prevented the craft from latching firmly to the docking port.

Yuri Romanenko and Alexander Laveikin - the Mir crew - took a 3-hour, 30-minute spacewalk April 12 (Cosmonautics Day) and fixed the problem. Guided by mission controllers in a somewhat risky operation, they removed what appeared to be a plastic bag that had blocked the latching. It was Laveikin, by the way, who was brought home July 30 for medical reasons.

Some news people might argue that it is hard to report even such spectacular events, let alone routine operations, in the secretive Soviet space program. That's a cop-out. The Soviets are secretive about many things, including their arms control strategy, about which there's plenty of reporting. When American news organizations can't get facts directly from Soviet sources, they go to knowledgeable Western sources. They develop their own expertise as well.

They could do the same for the Soviet space program, especially since the Soviets are now more forthcoming about its civilian aspects. If specialized magazines such as Aviation Week & Space Technology or the British journal Spaceflight can publish detailed reports of many aspects of Soviet space activity, so can general news media, if they are willing to work at it.

The Soviets had full-scale models of the Mir and Kvant at the Paris Air Show. They have brochures of their Proton rocket, which they are offering as a commercial launch service. Western analysts have made extensive assessments of that rocket's performance. The recent United States tour of a Soviet Proton sales delegation would have been an ideal news peg for a thorough report on Soviet launch capabilities. But while there has been extensive coverage and analysis of Soviet arms control positions, there has been nothing comparable to inform people of Soviet commercial space maneuvering, including the effort to rent experimental facilities on the Mir station.

As for the Soviet space science program, in which many of America's Western allies are beginning to take part, there is abundant information available in the West. Yet where was the news media interest when American and Soviet space scientists discussed their hopes and plans in an unprecedented four-hour teleconference between Boulder, Colo., and Moscow last month? Only specialist reporters, such as this columnist, were there.

The sad fact is that mainline news media have a ``ho hum'' attitude toward the Soviet space program. Their Moscow correspondents concentrate on politics and economics. Their editors and producers have a similar focus.

They likewise considered the United States' space program ``a big yawn'' (to quote one editor) before the Challenger accident highlighted that program's political and economic importance. They should realize that Soviet space prowess is a political fact that deserves continuous coverage.

A Tuesday column. Robert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor.

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