The Soviet Union sent a new, unmanned space station into earth orbit today in possible preparation for a manned mission to coincide with next Tuesday's 20th anniversary of the launching of Sputnick, the world's first artificial satellite.
The new space station, called Salyut-6, was functioning normally, according to Tass, the official Soviet news agency. Some Western sources speculated that the Salyut might be joined by a Soyuz manned craft for a space spectacular next month to mark the Sputnik anniversary or perhaps for the Nov. 7 celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Bolshevik seizure of power.
Tass said the Salyut "has been launched for the purpose of conducting scientific and technical research and experiments and for checking on the design, onboard systems and equipment of orbital stations."
The announcement was made after the station was in orbit. Soviet television carried the announcement but no film of the launch - standard custom here, where the space program has been carried ouyt in a much more secretive manner than in the United States.
The new space station is being controlled from a center near Moscow, using tracking and communications stations well to the east and aboard specially equipped vessels in the Atlantic Ocean, according to Tass.
The Soviet Union has manned space mission was in February when two cosmonauts, Viktor Gorbatko and Yuri Glazkov, conducted an 18-day mission aboard Salyut-5.
The Salyut program, marked by an uneven record of success, is in its seventh year. The 20-ton, $500-million space stations have been used for making topographic photos of the earth, for space medicine experiments and for astrophysics investigations. The Soviets have said that manned space stations are the main goal of the nation's space programs and that they can serve eventually as bases for interplanetary voyages.
The U.S. Skylab space station program ended in 1974, but a new space shuttle is in the testing stage. Some scientists have suggested that the shuttle could be used to ferry crews to and from Soviet space stations.
The use of a U.S. shuttle to eventually service of Salyut space station has been proposed as a logical extension of the Soviet-American rendezvous and docking of a Soyuz and an Apollo spacecraft in 1975, an event that is still looked upon here as important in the history of the Soviet space program.
The first Salyut was launched in 1971 and was visited, but not entered, by the crew from a Soyuz space capsule. Western scientists said the failure to go inside the lab was a setback for the Soviet program. The second Soyuz voyage to the Salyut was more successful. A crew of three lived aboard the space station for 22 days but they died in an accidental venting of cabin air during their return to earth.
Other Soyuz spacecraft have docked with successor Salyuts, and altogether Soviet spacemen have spent more than 6 months in space, including one stay of 63 days. The Americans hold the record for duration, having stayed in a Skylab for 84 days. Some Soviet crews have reportedly been brought down sooner than planned after showing signs of adverse psychological effects from being in space for an extended time.