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Discord in French-USSR space effort

With a joint French-Soviet cosmonaut team ready to visit the new Salyut 7 space station anytime now, you might expect joy within the French space community. Not so.

Chronic disgust with Soviet bullying in Afghanistan and Poland and with suppression of intellectuals inside the USSR continues to surface in France. French space scientists are also unhappy with the cooperative arrangement itself. As far as they are concerned, it has turned out to be less than a full partnership.

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According to an authoritative source who does not want to be quoted directly, French space engineers voted to quit Soviet joint ventures partly as a protest against the crackdown in Poland. President Francois Mitterrand, however, ruled that the cooperation should continue for political reasons.

That was some months ago. More recently, according to the journal Nature, similar demands have come from a wider spectrum of the French scientific and technical community. Three groups urge France to withdraw from the coming joint spaceflight. They are Comite Physiciens Francais, Comite Sakharov (named for the Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov, who has been disgraced by his government), and Solidarite au Spacionaute.

These groups are not only distressed by Soviet aggression and abuse of human rights. They also see French participation in the joint spaceflight as a needless propaganda gift to the USSR. France, they note, will gain little, either scientifically or in manned spaceflight experience. On the other hand, the Soviets would make hay out of the first ''guest'' cosmonaut from outside their imperial orbit.

Ever since President de Gaulle visited the Soviet cosmodrome at Baikonur in 1966, France has cooperated in Soviet space ventures. It has furnished instruments for the Lunokhod moon rover and for Venus probes, and it has even supplied entire geophysical satellites that have been launched by Soviet rockets.

French scientists have gained much from this cooperation. But they have been made to feel they are junior partners who can participate only to the extent that suits Soviet purposes. This was made brutally clear when French participation in Venus probes to be launched later this decade was substantially cut back so the Soviets could send a mission to Halley's comet when the United States opted to pass up the opportunity. French specialists have also been disappointed by the joint manned space project. French cosmonauts have been allowed very limited access to Soviet training facilities and equipment.

Thus French scientists and engineers seem to feel they now have relatively little to lose in dropping out of the Franco-Soviet programs. Weighed against any gains is their desire to protest Soviet behavior. This desire has become more urgent as persecution of dissident Soviet intellectuals has intensified over the past year with systematic revocation of their university degrees. Even if the French government continues the Soviet space connection, the partnership will be severely strained.

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