Four such flights have now been made. Some experts believe the space plane could be a test model of a larger vehicle to ferry personnel to Soviet space stations. Others suspect it is a missile carrier that could drop out of space onto U. S. carrier fleets. ON A RAINY DAY in my barcelona accommodation I visited a great gray structure housing the Space Research Institute. The facility had a worn look, as did its less-than-new computers. Worn, but not tired. For here a galaxy of scientists directs a vast panoply of space programs for exploring the earth, the moon, and points beyond. Reflecting the hospitality of its personable director, English-speaking Academician Roald Z. Sagdeev, the institute has fostered warm international cooperation during the chilliest of international climates.
During the moon race the institute sent a procession of vehicles to that great goal—lunar flybys, lunar orbiters, lunar soil samplers. While Apollo 15 astronauts were exploring the moon’s Mare Imbrium, the robotic rover Lunokhod-1 was analyzing soil samples only 1,000 kilometers away. The red planet beckoned, and the Soviets sent forth a succession of probing spacecraft, each laden with tons of equipment. Two missed the planet entirely. Two crashed on the Martian surface—accidents U. S. experts fear may have introduced earth microbes to the Martian environment. Four other probes making the long journey met with only partial success. In 1988 two huge Soviet vehicles will again venture to Mars, to study its enigmatic moon Phobos. If everything goes well, small landers will descend, then hop about in great kangaroo leaps, chemically analyzing the surface.
The institute’s greatest successes were to inhospitable Venus. Time after time Soviet robots have raced through the solar system to overtake the planet, groped downward through its searing gases, and soft-landed to photograph and taste-test the scalding soil. “The missions are a remarkable testimony to Soviet capabilities,” observed Dr. James Head of Brown University, a leading U. S. planetary scientist who has worked cooperatively with Soviet counterparts. Cooperation between the two space powers reached an apogee in 1975, when their spacecraft rendezvoused in orbit and the crews—two Soviets and three Americans—spoke each other’s languages as they conducted experiments. Known to the Soviets as the Soyuz-Apollo project, it still is a source of national pride.
As commander the Soviets chose Alexei Leonov, first man to walk in space and a demigod in the pantheon of Soviet space heroes. Three-flight veteran Tom Stafford led the American crew, which included Vance Brand and Donald K. “Deke” Slayton. During training, Soyuz-Apollo crews and support teams visited each other’s countries half a dozen times, giving U. S. experts their closest look at the Soviet space program. I talked with crew member Deke Slayton, now president of Space Services, Inc. , a commercial launch company.
“Fine, generous guys,” he recalled of his Soviet colleagues. “We were all pilots, with a lot in common. Their training was like ours except they spent less time in simulators and more in the classroom. They weren’t as technically oriented. We were involved in engineering, while their role was primarily medical. They didn’t like being guinea pigs, but they went along.”
Mr. Slayton spoke of the cosmonauts’ lofty social status. “They’re heroes—almost revered. The Soviets have been playing at being atheists, and the cosmonauts seem to fill a vacuum.” And so it seemed to me. Exploits in space stir the Soviet soul like a religion—stirrings fanned by a government immensely proud of space successes.