Space: The Russians' Turn

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As he circled the earth in his Soyuz 4 spacecraft last week, Russian Cosmonaut Vladimir Shatalov looked down toward central Asia to watch a tiny billow of flame and smoke. It was Soyuz 5, on its way with Cosmonauts Boris Volynov, Evgeny Khrunov and Aleksei Eliseev. "I'll meet you soon in space," radioed Shatalov.

After slipping into orbit, the second Soyuz extended its winglike solar-energy collectors: it looked like some species of space bird as it sought out its sister ship. "We've been hunting for you," said someone in Soyuz 5 as ground controllers nudged the ships ever closer. Shatalov took control of Soyuz 4 to maneuver into final position, and the two ships docked. "He's raped us," Volynov said.

Khrunov and Eliseev entered the work compartment of their two-room ship and sealed it off from Volynov in the crew's quarters. In the other spacecraft, Shatalov sealed off his own control room. After donning new spacesuits that have individual life-support systems, Khrunov and Eliseev emerged from Soyuz 5 and space-walked across to Soyuz 4. They entered the work compartment, sealed its outside hatch behind them, brought up the pressure and then opened the compartment to join Shatalov.

Docking Crucial. Thus did four rookie cosmonauts perform the world's first crew exchange in orbit, serving notice to Americans that Russia has not given up in the space race. Jubilant Russians could point to their first manned-flight breakthrough in a long while. By the time the two vehicles separated 4 hrs., 35 min. later, Tass was hailing "the world's first experimental space station." Then Shatalov, Khrunov and Eliseev landed Soyuz 4 safely some 1,500 miles southeast of Moscow, within sight of recovery helicopters. This display of reentry accuracy overcame the perils of the snowy landing site's 31-below-zero cold, making Russia's first manned launch in winter a triumph.

For all the drama of the crew exchange, it was the docking that mattered most. Soviet booster rockets are dwarfed by America's Saturn 5 and cannot thrust a manned spacecraft to the moon in one leap. Instead, the Russians must assemble their lunar vehicles in earth orbit. Until last week, although they had twice docked unmanned spacecraft, no cosmonaut had piloted the pieces together.

Now the way is open for the Soviets to use future orbiting platforms not only as launching pads for manned lunar shots but also as bases from which rockets will explore the solar system. In addition, even the present four-compartment version might provide a roomy orbiting laboratory from which to observe the earth and its weather, or to give astronomers a wonderfully close, clear look at the heavens. Western scientists cited the attractions to biologists and engineers of spacelab experiments in utter vacuum and weightlessness. There also remained the unspoken threat that Moscow could turn a space station into a military weapon.

Although many scientists still place the Soviets behind the U.S. in overall manned space flight, not until late next month will America attempt a crew transfer with Apollo 9. Thus there could be no doubt that last week's Russian space exploit had to be taken as a major step forward.