THE maiden flight of the Soviet shuttle Buran (Snowstorm) is the latest reminder that the United States approach to and leadership in space is open to challenge. The shuttle completed a virtually flawless two-orbit unmanned test flight Tuesday. That is a long way from having an operational fleet of reusable space vehicles, but it demonstrates a technological prowess that, if not always matching the sophistication of Western space equipment, at least seems to get the job done.
Having first developed their space station, the Soviets are now establishing the means to bring space-made products back to Earth, as well as service a much larger station in the 1990s.
Undoubtedly the Soviets found the open literature on the US shuttle of great help in developing their version. But Buran's larger capacity for payload and crew, as well as its launch characteristics, indicates the Soviets had to solve some tough engineering problems on their own.
The success gives Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev something to point to with justifiable pride. At home, the flight doesn't put meat on the table, but it does give Soviet citizens a diversion. Abroad, the Soviet economy has provided little in the way of an alternative model to the high-tech market economies of the West. Buran's flight suggests that while they may be down, the Soviets are not out when they direct their command economy toward a technological goal.