The recent launch of the Soviet space shuttle--a vehicle that is both remarkably similar and yet significantly different from its U.S. counterpart--telegraphed to the world that the Soviet Union remains strongly committed to a broad range of goals in space exploration and has benefited profoundly from U.S. research.
Furthermore, many experts in the United States believe the successful launch of the shuttle Buran on a fully automated, unmanned test flight means that the Soviets have moved ahead of the United States in a number of key areas in space science, and they clearly intend to stay there. Several other orbiters are under construction in the Soviet Union, and the reusable vehicles are expected to be the major source of access to a huge, new space station that the Soviets are planning for the mid-1990s.
"It's just one more example of their continuing commitment across the board to space," said John M. Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and an expert on the Soviet space program.
Many experts were clearly surprised by the level of technological achievement that the flight of the Buran demonstrated, especially in computer sciences, a discipline in which the Soviets had been woefully inadequate. Any space shuttle--whether ours or theirs--is flown almost entirely by computers because the level of control needed to maintain the vehicle is far beyond the ability of even the finest pilots. Thus the successful flight of the Buran proved that the Soviets have made great strides in the development of computers, and they have brought off a major technological achievement.
"This is the biggest thing they've bitten off since Sputnik," said John Pike, space policy expert with the Federation of American Scientists.
But beyond that, the Soviets scored a coup in the design of their craft that many American scientists envy.
Unlike its American counterpart, the Soviet shuttle has small engines used only for maneuvering the vehicle in space and slowing it down for reentry. Its main engines are in the liquid-fueled Energia rocket strapped to its side, a powerhouse that rivals those built by the United States to send astronauts to the moon.
Conversely, the main engines in the U.S. shuttle are in the orbiter itself, and the United States no longer has rockets in the same league as the Energia.
What that means is that the Energia can be used for a wide range of projects independent of the Soviet shuttle, and that gives the Soviets a powerful, versatile vehicle capable of carrying enormous payloads into space in a wide range of configurations. It could be used, for example, to send an entire fleet of robotic vehicles to explore the other planets in a single launch.
Since the Soviet shuttle itself is not an indispensable part of the propulsion system, other payloads can simply be strapped to the Energia in place of the shuttle, as was done in the Energia's initial test flight a year ago. That would permit the Soviets to launch more than 200,000 pounds into space. The U.S. shuttle, by contrast, can carry less than 60,000 pounds.
"What puts the Soviets definitely ahead is they have a multipurpose heavy lifter," said Robert L. Staehle, president of the World Space Foundation. "That's going to give them considerably more flexibility." The nonprofit research foundation is based in South Pasadena. In the United States, Staehle noted, "We're just starting to think about that." A heavy launch vehicle is not expected to be available in this country until the latter part of the century, at the earliest.
Despite that great difference between the Soviet and the U.S. shuttles, the vehicles are more similar than different. Few doubt that the Soviets profited from U.S. research. The shuttle has been the keystone of the U.S. space program for a decade, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and individual scientists and engineers have made their research available to just about anyone who has asked. Indeed, detailed drawings of nearly every part of the U.S. shuttle can be purchased at the gift shop at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, offering keen insights into the shuttle's design.
That may explain why both vehicles are covered with heat-resistant thermal tiles, both have Delta wings and both are about the same size. Even the paint is nearly identical. But there are subtle differences. The Soviet shuttle is about three feet shorter and a little wider, and the crew compartments are slightly different.
But the similarities are not an accident.
"Ten years ago the shuttle was barely within our grasp, and clearly beyond the Soviets' grasp," said Pike of the Federation of American Scientists.
"There's no doubt the Soviets have a big 'vacuum cleaner' " to gather U.S. research, Pike added. "But at the end of the day, they had to build it themselves."
Some experts believe the Soviet decision to test-fly the craft without risking human lives says much about the level of caution in the Soviet program.