In just a few weeks the exact date has not been announced the Soviet Union is expected to launch its first shuttle into orbit. The Kosmolyot spacecraft will not have a crew, but will circle the earth and land again by remote control. Cosmonauts will fly later missions.

The Kosmolyot will be lifted piggyback into space aboard a huge new Russian rocket, the Energia, the world's largest booster rocket, with 6.6 million pounds of thrust. It will be five to 10 years before the U.S. starts testing a booster rocket as powerful as the already-operational Soviet Energia.The Soviet shuttle looks somewhat like the U.S. shuttle, except that it has jet engines on its tail to increase maneuverability and safety while landing. The U.S. shuttles land without jet power, hurtling down from orbit in a long glide.

All of this means the the Soviets have caught and passed the American space program, which has been grounded since the Challenger disaster Jan. 28, 1986, when all seven crew members died in an explosion shortly after liftoff.

Since then, the space effort seems gripped by paralysis. What progress there is has been agonizingly slow. It was a faulty seal on the Challenger's booster rockets that caused the explosion a seemingly straightforward problem.

Yet more than two years have passed, the redesigned booster seal has been termed "all right" by NASA chief James C. Fletcher, but not the best possible design. Various proposed launched dates have been rescheduled. The planned Aug. 4 date now may have to be moved back to sometime in the fall.

What's wrong here? Why is everything moving in slow motion? Certainly the U.S. cannot rush ahead in careless fashion. Serious attention must be paid to safety. But the delay seems far greater than the original problem would indicate. If it takes nearly three years to redesign and test a simple booster seal, the U.S. program is going to have a tough time catching up with the Russians.

It didn't used to be this way. When a launch pad fire killed three Apollo astronauts, Jan. 27, 1967, the whole spacecraft had to be redesigned. Twenty months later, a manned Apollo 7 was in orbit. When an explosion crippled Apollo 13 some 200,000 miles from earth during a moon voyage, the craft barely made it back home with the trio of astronauts. Nine months later, Apollo 14 was on the way to the moon.

In those days, they acknowledged the risks and pushed ahead. The mentality has changed in the past 20 years. Now, caution and fear have the upper hand. That is a recipe for never getting off the ground.