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The Soviets: reaching for the stars; Red Star in Orbit, by James E. Oberg. New York: Random House. $12.95

As author James Oberg has said in another context, if the Russians are indeed the first humans to walk on Mars, as they have often claimed they would be, ". . . they are the ones who deserve to, since they believe in it and are sacrificing for it." Now, in one of the most important studies of the Soviet space program yet made for general readers, Oberg documents that sacrifice and shows something of the true dimensions of this determined reach for the stars.

From the first sputnik orbited nearly 24 years ago to the long-duration missions of cosmonauts in the Salyut orbital station, that program has expressed a deep cultural yearning to expand outward into space. This sense of destiny shines through the propaganda and secrecy shrouding much of Soviet space activity from Western eyes. Yet it is the most important single fact about the Soviet space program for outsiders to appreciate for it gives that program a basic strength that has enabled it to surmount failures and political pressures that far exceed any setbacks the US space effort has experienced.

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Oberg draws that shroud aside a little. A computer specialist with the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center at Houston, he follows the Soviet space program closely and has become one of its leading Western analysts. His account of the program's development includes many facts not widely known outside a small circle within the Soviet Union.

His book details the many critical failures, including loss of a number of cosmonauts, that have repeatedly set the program back. It shows how political pressures contributed to some of these failures by forcing the manned space flight team to attempt dangerous, but potentially spectacular, missions prematurely with safety being given second priority.

Rarely have such failures been admitted publicly by the USSR. Instead, one of the world's most assiduous propaganda machines has obscured and distorted the truth to the point where it may never be possible to construct a complete history of Soviet space developments. Some of the distortions are ludicrously petty, as when the images of cosmonauts who have failed or fallen out of favor are removed from official photographs. Some of the deceptions are monumental and skillful enough to be swallowed by gullible Westerners. Such was the case with the fiction that the Soviets were never in a moon race with the US. They were. And the US success was a stunning blow to the USSR.

Oberg penetrates a great deal of this secrecy and corrects many of the distortions, although he makes no claim to having sketched the total picture. He shows how Russia's true space pioneers have persevered -- whether victimized by political purges, confronted by failure, or having to kowtow to the shibboleths of a police state. They believe in what they are doing. They have made the Soviet space program a formidable challenge to the United States. And, within the next two decades, they probably will establish permanent manned space stations in Earth orbit and may even have cosmonauts on their way to Mars.

No one who is concerned about the future of humankind should fail to read this book.