WHEN Soviet engineers launched Sputnik 1 on Oct. 4, 1957, they startled the world with their orbital prowess. Thirty years later, they still lead in the operational use of near-Earth space. Recalling the shock Americans felt as they listened to the radio ``beep'' of the first man-made moon, Jerry Grey, director of science and technical policy at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), says: ``I think we're indeed headed for another Sputnik.''
Dr. Grey doesn't anticipate the crisis atmosphere that sparked the original space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. That sense of competition doesn't exist now.
But, he says, the stage is set for another disconcerting awakening. The Soviets were telling the world about Sputnik three years ahead of time. ``We just didn't believe them,'' he explains.
Now, he adds, ``history is repeating itself,'' as many Americans discount the Soviets' announced intention to industrialize space, maintain a permanent manned presence in Earth orbit, and extensively explore Mars.
It took only one small (albeit unprecedented) satellite to arouse American concern 30 years ago. Today, the Soviets regularly launch 90 to 100 spacecraft every year. They own something like 80 percent of the several dozen active satellites orbiting Earth at any given time. These include the unoccupied, but still operational, Salyut 7 space station and the expandable space station Mir.
At this writing, cosmonauts Yuri Romanenko and Alexander Alexandrov were busily at work on Mir, which may become the world's first permanently occupied space station. They have also been making astronomical observations with the Kvant module that they helped dock with Mir last April. It is the first of several full-size laboratory and habitation modules to be added to the facility. The Soviets have announced they expect to add a materials-processing module within two years to study and produce highly pure electronics materials and other substances whose preparation benefits from weightlessness.
The Soviets' ability to expand Mir, and to supply it routinely using automated unmanned cargo ships, represents an operational capability that the US has never even possessed, let alone demonstrated.
``They do have a flexible vehicle in orbit,'' says Grey. He adds that Mir's is a kind of flexibility that the shuttle can't provide.
If Cosmonaut Romanenko is still on board Mir this Saturday, during the Sputnik anniversary weekend, he will break his own, and the world's, record of having lived 237 consecutive days in space. The Soviets are gaining much valuable experience in the physiology of extended spaceflight and of weightlessness. This knowledge is essential for planning permanent space-station occupancy and for manned expeditions to Mars. The United States won't begin to gain such experience until its own space station is operational in the mid-1990s.
The Soviets will be masters in this field by then. So confident are they of their lead that they have only half jokingly suggested they would welcome American astronauts on board Mir (for a price) so that the US could share directly in this research.
With plenty of rockets available - including the new Energia, designed to lift about 200,000 pounds into low Earth orbit - the Soviets are moving aggressively in all fields of space activity. They're preparing to flight-test a reusable space shuttle. They're ready to launch a mission to Mars and its moons next year with participation by a number of countries, including the US and the members of the European Space Agency. They have announced ambitious plans for solar system exploration through the rest of the century.
Although not all these plans yet have official mission status, they include robot exploration of Mars, with return of martian samples and probes of asteroids. Their highly successful - and highly visible - international mission to Halley's comet gives such planning credibility, in the judgment of experienced Western space scientists and administrators.
``The Soviets have the capability for high-quality science and technology missions,'' says Burton I. Edelson, who left the National Aeronautics and Space Administration last summer after serving as associate administrator for space science and applications. He told a press briefing on the Soviet program arranged by AIAA last summer that he agrees with Grey that the US is ``in for an unfolding revelation and realization of the great progress the Soviets have made.'' Noting that the US is unlikely to have a significant expendable rocket capability until 1992 or 1993, he observed:
``The sheer operational number of launches [the Soviets] have, and the number of tries they can make ... puts us in a difficult position.''
Both Grey and Dr. Edelson point out that the Soviet space lead is not absolute. The Soviets are indeed ahead in operational use of their equipment, especially in manned orbital operations. But the US still leads in the quality of its space technology and space science.
Nevertheless, Edelson warns that, if the US doesn't begin to do more in space science, it may find itself behind the Soviets in that field, too, within a few years' time.
Secure in their achievements, the Soviets have opened up many civilian aspects of their space program. They show full-scale models of their space stations and Soyuz spacecraft at trade shows. They freely distribute brochures describing many of the capabilities of Mir and of their rockets. This is still less than the traditional openness of Western space programs. Large aspects of the Soviet effort remain secret, especially those with military implications.
The Soviets have to open up partly because they want to be a major player in space business. They are offering launch services at prices half or less than those quoted in the West. They have yet to take as final the US State Department's refusal to allow American-made satellites to ride aloft on Soviet rockets. They are offering to lease or sell communications satellites. They will rent space and cosmonaut services on board Mir for orbital experiments. They will provide pictures - including computer-enhanced pictures - from their Earth-scanning satellites.
So far, the Soviets have had few customers outside their own bloc. But engineer-astronaut Charles Walker of McDonnell Douglas Astronautics Company takes their commercial aspirations seriously. He explained at the AIAA briefing that ``the Soviets have satisfied themselves that space does have economic potential.''
While Soviet cost-benefit studies are scarcely known in the West, Mr. Walker cited two examples. Satellite surveillance led to savings of 500 to 600 million rubles ($775 million to $930 million) in agriculture and in water and timber resource management over a three-year period in the mid-1970s. Semiconductor crystals produced on orbit yield 10 times the number of useful wafers as do crystals grown on the ground. As a result, the space crystals produce five times as much profit, financially, than conventional crystals.
As to the Soviets' stated intention of industrializing space, ``They will do just that,'' Walker said. He noted Soviet comments that they expect to use the Energia rocket, in the next century, to orbit sun-reflecting satellites that will brighten the Arctic night and solar-power satellites that will beam electricity to Earth.
He added, ``I believe we will see this.''
The US response to Sputnik 1 was to enter a race for prestige and achievement with the Soviet Union. Now there is widespread talk of cooperation. An official agreement between the two countries provides a formal framework within which they can work together. But even in recent years when there has been no such umbrella agreement, cooperation on specific projects has benefited the US, Edelson said.
He explained that ``in the area of space biology and medicine, they have been very generous in sharing their data.'' He characterized this as a large net flow from the Soviets to the US. Likewise, he said the US has gained more than it gave in cooperating with the Soviets and helping track their two VEGA spacecraft during their Halley's comet mission.
Thus, Edelson urged the Reagan administration to consider seriously Soviet overtures for a cooperative robot exploration and sample return Mars mission. Though there has been no official Kremlin offer, Soviet scientists and space officials have been suggesting it to American scientists at various scientific meetings for a couple of years.
Roald Sagdeev, head of the Space Research Institute in Moscow, probably brought it up again when he held discussions on cooperation with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in late summer. He is in charge of a Sputnik anniversary forum being held in Moscow tomorrow through Sunday, for which he extended an official invitation to NASA. But at this writing, there had been no administration response to the Mars mission feelers.
Edelson said the US is ``faced with a question: ... What do we do about this opportunity?'' Should the nation accept and begin a major cooperative project, should it compete and try to be ``first'' again, or should it just ignore the question and go its own way in space?
``Our silence on this matter would probably be interpreted as the third approach,'' he warned.
His personal recommendation is that the US accept the offer to plan the mission, spend a year or so planning it with the Soviets, and then, if it seems feasible, enter a cooperative Mars program. Both sides have much to contribute. The Russians, Edelson explained, would help bear the cost and bring formidable operational capability to the project. This, he said, would ``amplify'' what the US does ``superbly well'' in providing scientific instrumentation and processing the data.
Meanwhile, life continues to improve for Soviet cosmonauts. Starting next year, they should be dining on haute cuisine instead of their present fare, whose taste reminded French astronaut Jean-Loup Cr'etien of rancid almonds. Pierre Boudge and Lucien Vanel, two celebrated Toulouse chefs, have been working with Soviet nutritionists to adapt such delicacies as Canard 'a la Cuillers aux Artichauts and Comp^ote de Pigeon aux Dattes (duck in artichokes and pigeon with dates) for orbital - one might say literally ``haute'' (``high'') - dining.