Comparisons are bound to be made between the recent space flight of American astronaut Sally K. Ride - America's first woman in space - and the Soviet Union's two space women, Valentina Tereshkova and Svetlana Savitskaya.
But if anything useful is to be learned, the comparison must be fair. It must contrast the realities of these events and not the myths that have been incidentally and deliberately wrapped around them.
The Soviets seek a purely chronological comparison: ''Ours were first!'' And they were. Valentina Tereshkova, the world's first woman in space, was launched on June 16, 1963. This was nearly 20 years to the day before the blastoff of America's Space Transportation System 7 (STS-7), with its five-member astronaut team aboard the shuttle Challenger.
That ''first,'' however, has become so enshrouded with myth that it's often difficult to separate fact from fiction. For Soviet propagandists, the flight was used to tout the ''equality of Soviet women under socialism.'' That early space flight led millions of people in the West to believe exactly that.
Then-Prime Minister Nikita S. Khrushchev had decreed that the woman cosmonaut must be a distinctly ''ordinary'' Russian girl. And so she was: Mrs. Tereshkova was an assembly-line worker in a textile factory when she was picked, with three others, to prepare for the flight. Once she flew, the other three were expelled from the space program as superfluous. She, in turn, took her expected place as a touring exhibit of Soviet culture, giving speeches and cutting ribbons forevermore.
The male cosmonauts had always regarded her with a mixture of condescension and contempt. ''They hate me, you know,'' she openly confided to foreign visitors at a reception. Her success had cast a shadow over their machismo, since if a factory girl from Yaroslavl could make it into orbit, what was so tough about space flight?
Such attitudes probably had a lot to do with a plethora of disparaging rumors about her behavior in space.
''We'll never send another woman into space,'' proclaimed Soviet space specialists. ''Yes, we will,'' argued another cosmonaut (her husband, in fact), ''when we need stewardesses.''
But another need came up first. It was easy to predict, since the Soviet passion for empty space stunts is foreseeable, as is the continuous success of such stunts in deluding large numbers of people around the world. As the United States space shuttle program began and women joined the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) astronaut cadre, it became evident that the Soviets would have to pull off another stunt to preempt the attention surely to be given to the first American space woman (my prediction was published in my 1981 book ''Red Star in Orbit'' on Page 233).
And so they did, with the flight in August 1982 of Svetlana Savitskaya. Again , the event was proclaimed as proof of Soviet social virtue and equality. Again, it was a myth.
Mrs. Savitskaya was a pilot and a skilled one at that. But she did not fly as a pilot. Instead, she played the part of - and was given the same formal designation as - the 10 previous non-Soviet spacemen of the ''guest cosmonaut'' program. Like them, she was assigned to a passenger seat on a short ''milk run'' resupply visit to an operating long-duration expedition aboard a Salyut space station. Such simple missions had to be made periodically anyway, so the addition of non-essential personnel cost little.
Mrs. Savitskaya's true symbolism might really have been as a representative of a negative feature endemic in Soviet society: nepotism, favoritism, and family influence. She was admitted to special schools (such as a test pilot institute) that have traditionally been male-only in the USSR. She became the first woman to enter such institutions for a simple reason: Her father, a much-decorated pilot who was one of his country's World War II fighter aces, was chief of staff of the Soviet Air Force. His daughter was clearly a skilled and courageous flier, but it was not those qualities alone that brought her into orbit.
But the American women were picked for distinctly different reasons, and Americans can be proud of the women and the reasons.
The first and greatest difference is that they were picked as specialists and skilled experts, not just as women. Unlike the Soviet women, who were selected in special contingents, their US counterparts competed against, and were selected in place of, other male candidates. And unlike the losers in the Soviet competition for flight, who were banished back into obscurity once the token mission had been made, all of the US women astronauts remain on flight status and all of them will fly, barring personal or medical developments.
Second, America's women astronauts are regular crew members, not ''add-on'' guests for window dressing. On STS-7, Dr. Ride performed key roles in the scientific work, in the deployment of two communications satellites, and in the engineering testing of the shuttle's mechanical arm. She had prepared for such duties during the five years of training and special projects she had been assigned while an astronaut.
The same goes for the other US women astronauts: They are doctors, engineers, biochemists, and representatives of other specialities needed on space missions.
Since the women are there because of their skills, Dr. Ride's selection for STS-7 doesn't imply that she is the ''best'' of the women astronauts. Her skills were most needed on this particular mission. Her attributes of calmness, sound judgment, and cooperation - which were praised by crew commander Crippen - are also exhibited by the other women. And they all will have a chance to prove this in orbit.
This difference in selection criteria can be illustrated another way. By examining technical qualifications and previous experience alone, the Soviet women cosmonauts can easily be picked out. They would never have had a chance at selection if they had not been women and if Moscow had not twice decided to fly a woman to ''show the world.'' But the qualifications of the American women are no different from those of men in the US astronaut group.
American women, competing on their own merits, continue to achieve success and recognition in space careers. NASA now has a total of eight women in the ''Mission Specialist'' category of astronauts and two more women scientists have been selected as candidate-astronauts in the ''Payload Specialist'' category for Spacelab missions. Meanwhile, the US Air Force has recently selected a cadre of ''Manned Spaceflight Engineers'' from which to draw astronauts for duty with special Defense Department payloads to be carried on the space shuttle; reportedly, two of these astronauts are women as well.
However, one category of American astronauts remains all male: the pilots who actually fly the spacecraft. Here, NASA faces the same problem that prevented a fair selection of women astronauts in earlier years. Groups from which NASA selects astronauts, such as test pilot school graduates, have excluded women, often arbitrarily and unfairly. That situation has gradually changed and women pilots can be expected to be selected as astronauts in the future. But this does remain a last unachieved goal of gender-free selection for space flight.
As such, it offers the Soviets a propaganda opportunity they may be unable to pass up. Just as it was easy to predict correctly that there would be another Soviet woman cosmonaut shortly prior to America's first woman astronaut, or that the Cuban ''guest cosmonaut'' who flew in 1980 would be selected on blatantly racial grounds as the ''first black man in space,'' so too is it possible to anticipate the next Soviet space spectacular. That will be when the first woman cosmonaut - probably Mrs. Savitskaya herself - is placed in command of a mission.
The mission need not be a particularly important one, since the people to be impressed aren't likely to notice the difference. A routine week-long resupply mission to a long space station expedition (such as the mission Mrs. Savitskaya flew on last summer) would be an excellent opportunity. In the past, such simple missions have been commanded by about-to-be-retired oldtimers, or by nonpilot civilian engineers, or on occasion by nobody at all since they can be flown on autopilot alone. Mrs. Savitskaya is a good pilot and is capable of carrying out such a flight plan.
For added glamour, the rest of the crew could be female, too: a woman engineer and a woman doctor, perhaps. That would certainly be a feat unlikely ever to be duplicated in the American space program.
How soon could this happen? To stay ahead of the game, it should be before too many more American women have ventured into space. Most certainly it should be before Dr. Ride makes a second (and therefore record-setting) space flight, which could be within two years.
That would make the next Soviet woman-in-space spectacular likely sometime before the end of 1984. It could, of course, occur much sooner.
These differences in approach to sending women into space are more than a matter of style. They seem to reflect the status of women in the two societies. The flights of the Russian space women were meant to paint a false picture of Soviet womanhood, a counterfeit image all too eagerly accepted in many Western circles concerned with the valid struggle for women's rights. Dr. Ride's flight, and the flights of other American women who will follow her, represents a genuine across-the-board social phenomenon of hard-fought women's gains, however incomplete these gains may be. Dr. Ride's preflight comment that it is a pity that her flight ''really is such a big deal'' is on target because soon such flights by US women will no longer be made into a big deal.
In America today, a woman can finally earn her own way into space. In the Soviet Union, an occasional token woman can be picked to go for men's reasons, when it is expedient for propaganda. That's all the difference in the world - or out of it.