Moscow Preparing A Shuttle Launch

By Felicity Barringer
The New York Times

MOSCOW, April 9, 1988 -- As the crippled United States space program struggles to get back on its feet, the Soviet Union is gearing up for the launch of its first shuttle on an unmanned mission.

And the Russians, while reluctant to discuss their plans in detail, are much more open about the mission than they have been previously.

Stepan Bogodyazh, the spokesman for the main space agency Glavkosmos, said in an interview Thursday that the Soviet space shuttle's first unmanned mission would probably take place this year, but he would not be more specific.

According to an American expert on the Soviet program, Nicholas L. Johnson, who is an advisory scientist at Teledyne-Brown Engineering in Colorado Springs, Colo., some Soviet experts have indicated to American scientists that the Soviet shuttle would be launched in June.

'Reached the Final Stage'

''We have reached the final stage,'' Mr. Bogodyazh said. ''But no one can say when the shuttle will be launched. Why should we hurry? I'd like it to be tomorrow. But the engineers and technicians will have the last word.''

Mr. Bogodyazh reiterated the Soviet emphasis on caution, saying there were still many problems with the Soviet shuttle, or kosmolyot, and the powerful Energia rocket that will launch it.

The Energia rocket was successfully tested last May, although its dummy shuttle payload failed to reach orbit. It was not until a few months before that launching, however, that Soviet officials acknowledged that a shuttle program was underway. They had continually denied that a reusable space vehicle was being tested.

As discussion of the shuttle has become more open, an astronaut and test pilot, Igor Volk, 50 years old, gave an interview to the Communist Party newspaper Pravda saying that Soviet pilots began pre-shuttle experiments in the early 1980's.

U.S. Flights Suspended in 1986

The American shuttle program began with the two-day mission of the shuttle Columbia in April 1981 and has been suspended since the Challenger disaster in 1986. The next launch is scheduled for August.

The timing of the Soviet launch, Mr. Bogodyazh said, depends in part on the ability to solve a variety of unspecified problems with both the Energia rocket and the shuttle itself. ''There are a lot of problems, a lot of problems, both with the rocket and the shuttle,'' he said. ''And every day there are new problems.''

Like all other known Soviet manned missions, the shuttle would be launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, near the city of Tyuratam in Central Asia.

Few Americans have had a chance to see the space installation. The huge launch complex and training center was visited by an American representating the Space Commerce Corporation, a Houston-based company trying to market Soviet rocket services, last November. In the mid-1970's, when the joint Apollo-Soyuz mission was being prepared, American experts were also able to visit the complex, according to Mr. Johnson of Teledyne-Brown.

Reagan in Moscow in Late May

Mr. Bogodyazh said in the interview that Soviet space officials are prepared to give President Reagan a view of the launching and training site.

''We are ready to show him everything that we can show him,'' he said. ''I would be happy if we could be more open and our relations could be more direct.''

But in view of Mikhail S. Gorbachev's refusal to travel outside Washington during the December summit meeting between the two leaders, American officials have indicated that Mr. Reagan is unlikely to travel outside Moscow during the summit meeting May 29 to June 3.

The indication of Soviet willingness to broaden access to a site that has been the nerve center of the Soviet Union's manned and interplanetary space program - an installation that, until last November, had been off-limits to Americans for 10 years - is in tune with the cooperative atmosphere that has developed between the space scientists of the two countries, according to Mr. Johnson.


SANTA BARBARA, Calif., April 9 (Special to The New York Times) -An Administration official who recently returned from Moscow said the White House has not received an invitation from the Soviet Union to visit the space center and viewed the request as one of lower-level officials saying, ''It's here if you'd like to come.''

Copyright 1988 The New York Times Company