Our best -- and perhaps last -- opportunity to reach a workable accommodation with the Soviets appears on the verge of being lost before it is properly recognized.

While disarmament talks and negotiations must necessarily continue, the greatest opportunity appears to lie not in the narrow confines of a conference room but in the reaches of space. Within this decade, the United States and the Soviet Union plan to build permanent manned space stations. The age of space colonization, which scientists say will be comparable to the time when life emerged from the sea to colonize the land, will have begun.

But why two hostile space stations? Space -- the last and most expansive frontier -- will be what we make it. Must we make it into another "real world" living on the brink of self-annihilation? Must we play the same old unwinnable game in space, too?

A more appealing alternative, it seems to me, is to seek to make the first orbiting space station a weapons-free international project involving the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as other interested nations having a space capability.

Reaching agreement with the Soviets on this won't be easy, but as a policy objective it is probably far more attainable than any tension-reducing alternative available here on earth.

Space is virgin territory, insofar as weapons are concerned.

By converting what must otherwise inevitably become the first space weapons platforms into a joint project, the Americans and the Soviets would, for the first time, decisively interrupt the suicidal process that has captured them. Even more significantly, we would begin turning that process around, by learning to work together in a challenging environment, as is perhaps only now possible in space. In that context, the dramatically successful Apollo-Soyuz mission of 1975 is worth recalling.

The project was sealed by a space cooperation ageement signed by President Nixon and Premier Kosygin in Moscow on May 24, 1972. Two days later, Nixon and Kosygin signed a strategic arms pact.

The two documents bore an instructive difference.

Whereas the strategic arms pact called for open-ended discussion in gilded conference rooms, the space agreement involved a no-nonsense design and construction timetable targeted toward a specific objective -- a joint docking in space in 1975.

That tangible objective locked both sides into a train of technical imperatives which, in turn, influenced the basic character of their relations.1

For instance, initial American requests for information ran up against compulsive Soviet secretiveness. Had they been negotiating over language and analyzing force strengths on the basis of contested definitions, the effort surely would have ended in stalemate. But they had spacecraft to design and build, communications systems to integrate, astronauts to train, joint docking systems, joint tracking systems, joint life-support systems.

As the timetable ticked off, the Soviets opened up to an unprecedented extent. Scientists and technicians from both nations became wholly absorbed in the project, integrating distinctly different operational styles under the pressure of a shared deadline and a shared professional commitment to make the project work.

Thus, in mid-1973, an American delegation was admitted to the previously top secret Soviet mission control center -- again, for the technically-required purpose of coordinating communications and tracking. Looking out across the consoles, world maps, wall clocks, they saw, typed on the giant center screen: "WELCOME AMERICAN COLLEAGUES."

The following year, American astronauts lived and trained at the Soviet space center outside Moscow, Soviet cosmonauts trained in Houston, and American public affairs officials successfully sold the Russians on live TV coverage for the event. All were firsts.

Before the project concluded on July 17, 1975, with a successful docking in space the Soviets and Americans had negotiated and signed 133 working documents -- an unprecedented achievement.

Neil Hutchinson, the U.S. flight director of Apollo- Soyuz, summed up what was probably the project's most important contribution and what also turned out to be its greatest frustration for those involved:

"I wish there was another one of these flights. We've gone to all this trouble to learn how to work with these people. . . . I could run another Apollo-Soyuz with a heck of a lot less fuss than it took to get this one going."

So no one can say it can't be done. Not only that, but the stage is already set: In the seven years since Apollo- Soyuz, U.S. and Soviet space activites have followed strikingly complementary paths.

The Soviets have concentrated on long-duration space flights aboard orbiting house-trailer Salyut space stations (like our shortlived Skylab) serviced by manned Soyuz spacecraft and unmanned Progress resupply vehicles. Soviet cosmonauts have logged a solid two years of spaceflight, including a world record stint of six months.

The U. S. meanwhile, has concentrated on quick easy access with a reusable space vehicle. As the first takeoff- and-landing space vehicle, the shuttle is more sophisticated than anything the Soviets have developed. But flight duration for the shuttle is limited to seven days with present power systems and a maximum of 30 days with adjustments.

Clearly, the Soviet and American space programs are in synch. From the perspectives of science, engineering and economics, both nations would benefit immensely from combining their efforts at this point.

Inevitably, there is the question of politics. The political drawbacks include concern about technology transfer (we are ahead in micro-electronics and computer technology) and the related policy of using cooperation itself as a bargaining chip, like the cruise missile. But in full perspective, the political drawbacks are far outweighed by the advantage of an opportunity to rein in the arms race and redirect its latent energies to meet a new, more inspiring and far more demanding challenge.

A joint project in space would add a refreshingly expansive dimension to life on a planet edging toward self-annihilation.

The arms buildup on planet earth could continue -- Trident, MX, CX, BI, RDF, whatever our hearts desire. Arms control negotiation could continue. We might even continue antisatellite weapons testing, since that involves a ground-based Soviet weapon and an American weapon launched in the suborbital atmosphere from an F-16. So we would be protected.

But meanwhile, we also would be working on something with the Soviets. Something big. Something daring, bearing hope for the future.

And if it catches on, we actually build some common ground up there, begin seeding it, wouldn't it be worth a try?

Tom Stafford, American flight commander for the Apollo-Soyuz, said that when he opened the Apollo hatch to greet his Soviet counterpart, Alexei Leonov, as they spun in orbit 100 miles above the earth, he believed "we were opening back on Earth a new era in ths history of man."

We need to give the Staffords and Leonovs of this world a chance.