Like Its American Cousin, Soviet Shuttle Is Criticized

By John Noble Wilford
The New York Times

November 22, 1988

FRESH from its triumphant first flight in space a week ago, the Soviet Union's new space shuttle now faces the same challenges and criticisms that are confronting its American competitor.

The most outspoken opponent of the program, Roald Z. Sagdeyev, retiring director of the Space Research Institute in Moscow, said the Soviet shuttle was ''an outstanding technological achievement'' but a costly mistake.

''It went up; it came down,'' said Dr. Sagdeyev, who is visiting the United States with Andrei Sakharov, the dissident Soviet scientist.

''But it had absolutely no scientific value,'' he said in an interview with the Associated Press. ''My personal view is that American experience with the shuttle indicates that from the point of view of cost efficiency, the shuttle is in deep trouble. It is much simpler and cheaper to fly a payload with any kind of expendable vehicle.''

Soviet officials, in describing their shuttle in recent days, were especially vague about its purpose. They said it could be used to bring heavy payloads back from orbit for repairs but gave no hint what those payloads might be.

American experts on the Soviet program say they could see no immediate justification for a fleet of the re-usable Soviet shuttles. Some speculated that in the long run it might be the first step toward assembling and operating a large orbiting space station in the next decade.

''The Russians themselves may not know what they will be using the shuttle for,'' said an American specialist on Soviet technology, who requested anonymity. ''Their program was started 10 years ago, mainly in response to the American shuttle.''

For years some Soviet officials complained that their shuttle was just a misguided effort to match the United States. But not until recently had they become bold enough to criticize their program directly and in public.

In an unusually blunt article recently on Soviet science, Dr. Sagdeyev charged that the American shuttle, and by implication the Soviet version too, was a costly mistake.

''The U.S. aerospace industry, like the Soviet industry bureaucracies, used its influence to subvert the logic of science,'' Dr. Sagdeyev wrote. ''We have put too much emphasis on manned flight at the expense of unmanned efforts that produced more scientific information at lower cost.''

Dr. Sagdeyev is a scientist whose main interest is unmanned exploration of the planets through increasingly international cooperation, and his objections to the shuttle and manned flight echo those of American scientists in similar positions. But the Soviet scientist is also a close adviser to Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, and has become more outspoken as the new Soviet regime has secured its hold on power.

''It's clear there's opposition to the shuttle in the Soviet Union,'' said Marcia Smith, an analyst of the Soviet space program for the Library of Congress. Dr. Sagdeyev is more openly critical than others, she said, because he either ''has the blessing of Gorbachev and is immune, or else he's really taking a risk.''

Development Began in 1970's

Development of the Soviet shuttle apparently was begun in the 1970's under the regime of Leonid I. Brezhnev, according to American experts. Too much had already been invested for it to be canceled after the American vehicles failed to fulfill the goal of being more efficient and cost saving than an expendable, unmanned craft. At least four or five Soviet shuttles are believed to be in production.

James E. Oberg, an engineer at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, who is an authority on Soviet space activities, said the unveiling of the Soviet shuttle has revealed more clearly the friction between what he says are two separate bureaucracies controlling major segments of the Soviet space effort, namely the traditional space organization led by the Defense Ministry and a group of aviation and industry ministries.

According to Mr. Oberg, the shuttle was designed and constructed by a consortium of aviation bureaus managed by the Zhukovsky Central Aero-Hydrodynamical Institute. However, the traditional organization that put the Mir space station into orbit and operates the expendable Soyuz manned craft is directed by the Defense Ministry, with civilian agencies assisting.

A separate corps of astronauts, all test pilots, have been recruited and trained for shuttle flight by the Zhukovsky Institute, Mr. Oberg noted. Although two of the shuttle astronauts have flown on regular Soyuz missions, he said, they went along in seats reserved for ''foreign guests'' or ''scientist-passengers.''

Two Separate Programs

''I'm convinced there are two separate programs, very minimally integrated, with a significant amount of hostility and competition for resources,'' Mr. Oberg said.

Other American experts said, however, tht the separate programs could make sense because the shuttle was very different from other spacecraft, requiring experience in aerodynamic flight that would be concentrated at a facility like the Zhukovsky Institute.

The internal struggle, Mr. Oberg added, could account for some of the public denunciations of the American shuttle by Soviet officials in the early 1980's. For example, Konstantin P. Feoktistov, chief designer of manned space vehicles in the regular space establishment, attacked the American shuttle in 1984 as ''economically and technically unjustified'' and said that ''automated transports are more suitable'' than shuttles for supplying space stations.

Why would he disparage the American shuttle at a time when his own country was well along in the development of similar vehicles? ''I'm pushed toward the conclusion,'' Mr. Oberg said, ''that these attacks on our shuttle were indirect attacks on their own shuttle.''

Similar to American Vehicles

The 100-ton Soviet shuttle, named Buran for snowstorm, is similar to the American vehicles in size, shape and cargo capacity. Like the American shuttle, it has a delta-shaped wing for gliding back to earth and is covered with lightweight ceramic tiles to absorb the heat of re-entry. Its first flight was completely automatic, with no pilots aboard, and at least one more unmanned test is expected before astronauts will ride on the Soviet shuttle. The vehicle is said to be equipped for a crew of two to four pilots and an additional six passengers.

Soviet officials have not said when the next unmanned test will be or when shuttles will be ready for regular operations, which most American experts said might not be for two or three years.

One significant difference from the American shuttle is that the Soviet craft has no large rocket engines of its own. Nearly all the propulsion is supplied by the expendable Energiya rocket on which it is mounted. The advantage is that the Energiya can thus be used for nonshuttle, unmanned missions carrying heavy cargoes.

Jerry Grey, director of science and technology for the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, a professional engineering organization, said the United States, if it had it to do over again, probably would also have developed a large booster rocket and a shuttle with no engines of its own.

American space officials and other observers, while expressing admiration for the technological achievement, remain puzzled over what plans the Russians have for a fleet of re-usable shuttles. They generally dismiss claims that a primary purpose is servicing satellites in orbit and bringing some back to earth for repairs.

''It's totally out of line with their current program,'' an American expert said. ''They've got nothing up there capable of being serviced by a shuttle or worth bringing back.''

Soviet officials have indicated that they would not repeat the American mistake of trying to make their shuttle an all-purpose launching system replacing most expendable rockets and spacecraft. They have said they intended to continue using Soyuz spacecraft for sending crews to the Mir space station.

''The shuttles make a great deal of sense only if the Russians are planning a massive manned space station later in the next decade,'' Dr. Grey said, explaining that the Energiya used as an unmanned vehicle could carry the main components and the shuttles could ferry crews and supplies.

GRAPHIC: photo of Roald Z. Sagdeyev (NYT/Philip Taubman)

Copyright 1988 The New York Times Company