It all started with the Russians are coming, the Russians are coming. Or the Germans. Or the Chinese.

The science fiction of space flight dates back to the ancient Greeks, their dreamy trips preceding Jules Verne and Buck Rogers by almost 2,000 years. The early technology dates back almost half as far. But if it was man's sense of adventure, that innate yearning to leap frontiers, that fueled the dream, it was his warring over frontiers that fueled the technology.

Those two sides of man's nature, the dreamer and the soldier, will come together at Cape Canaveral, Fla., again Friday. Then two Americans will make their country's latest and perhaps most ambitious leap beyond earth's bounds aboard the space shuttle, a space ship that finally looks like a space ship, a flying machine instead of a rocket capsule.

If all goes well, the first shuttle will orbit the earth less than 2 1/2 days, returning to a hot California desert next Sunday. Still, the shuttle will give the United States the closest thing yet to a permanent leg in space -- a craft that can rocket up, fly back and then do it over and over again.

It will be the logical next step in man's tinkering with rockets and flying ships. And it will mark the latest threshold in the meshing of man's child-like dreams and grown-up fears -- or, perhaps, like grown-up dreams and child-like fears.

If all goes well, over the next few years the United States will have the ability to develop new industries in space and peer 350 times further into the depths of the universe through shuttle-carried telescopes. It also will have the ability to carry weapons into the heavens, to snatch enemy satellites. h

The maiden flight of the shuttle craft Columbia, you will hear over and over again this week, will put the American space program a solid decade ahead of the methodical Russians as if that were the meaning of the magnificent shower of fire and light Friday morning at the Cape. But thus it always has been.

More than 900 years ago the Chinese developed the first rockets, the ancient ancestors of the giant cluster of boosters that will send Columbia on its way. Attached to arrows and spears, the first rockets kept the Mongol hordes out of Peking.

The Mongols refined the technology and took it on their invasions of Europe. The Europeans refined it further to hold off the Mongols. By the 20th century, at the end of World War II, the Germans had pushed the technology to the point they almost had a sub-orbital rocket that would reach New York City.

But if it all started with the fear that the Chinese were coming, then the Mongols and the Germans, nothing has pushed rocket and space technology further and faster than the dread that the Russians were coming.

On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik 1, a crude 184-pound earth satellite. They also launched the space age and the space race, with its latest episode coming up this week.

In 1957 American citizens peered upward in the night skies for a glimpse of the little Russian star. American leaders peered inward to see if we had lost the space race as it began -- or, more importantly, they said, if we had lost the missile race.

Former senator Stuart Symington (D-Mo.) said the launching was "more proof of growing communist superiority in the all-important missile field." President Eisenhower's press secretary, James Hagerty, defensively responded that he never thought the United States was "in a race with the Soviets," but it was the last time that kind of talk was heard.

Then-CIA director Allen Dulles intoned that "a free people such as ours seems to require at periodic intervals dramatic developments to alert us to our perils."

A month after Sputnik 1, the Russians launched again -- this time a 1,121-pound satellite carrying the little dog, Laika.

Thus alerted, almost panicked, the United States tried to play a fast game of propaganda catch-up. On Dec. 6, 1957, an embarrased nation watched as a Vanguard rocket, hailed as America's ticket into space, lifted 18 inches off its pad at Cape Caneral and then blew up.

On Jan. 31, 1958, just three months but a propagandistic eternity after Sputnik 1, the United States finally launched its first satellite, the grapefruit-sized Explorer I. For the next few years the country suffered through the political anxiety of a nonexistent missile gap that carried into the 1960 presidential campaign. The United States came out of that election with a president determined to place men of the moon and return them safely by the end of the decade.

In 1961 the Soviets placed the first man, Yuri Gagarin, in orbit. A month later, the United States trailed along with the suborbital flight of Alan Shepard Jr. And almost a year after Gagarin, John Glenn soared into orbit for the United States. Glenn's flight ended the American era of second-best in space.

Seven years later, from a boulder-strewn place called the Sea of Tranquility, Neil Armstrong radioed the first words from the moon: "Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."

As the White House 250,000 miles away, President Nixon called the landing "the greatest event since Creation." There were five more landings on the moon by 1972. But Creation was a tough act to follow, the "peril" that alerted Americans 15 years earlier disappeared and, with earth-bound problems on the politicians' and the people's minds, the space program lagged in the doldrums.

Just months after the first moon landing, a White House task force headed by Vice President Agnew recommended a manned landing on Mars as early as 1983 as the next goal for American spacemen. But by 1970 President Nixon was recommending a "bold" but "balanced" program, Mars slipped into the distant future and the space shuttle came into being.

Still, if the shuttle was a compromise -- one that was compromised even further during the take-care-of-our-own-planet politics of the 1970s -- the voyage beginning Friday nevertheless starts a brand-new game in space.

From America's first grapefruit satellite in 1958 to its last manned space mission six years ago, the technology and the plans were essentially the same -- bigger boosters launching bigger grapefruit. America was launching space capsules, not spaceships.

With Columbia, the United States will be orbiting its first true flying machine -- a craft with delta wings and wheels. Originally, its primary function was to "shuttle" men and equipment to and from a permanent American space station. The space station got lost in the budget cutting almost a decade ago.

From the space station, still part of the NASA long-range dream, those planetary explorations to Mars and elsewhere would be one step closer to reality, the shuttle hauling men and interplanetary spaceship parts into orbit where the men would assemble the parts for trips into distant space.

Nothing quite that exotic will be happening now. But the reusable shuttle means the United States can haul equipment and men into orbit for a fraction of the cost of the enlarged grapefruits now becoming as archaic as the old biplanes. NASA even has sold room for 60-pound payloads on future shuttles for as little as $5,000.

The military applications of the shuttle are classified. But the idea that America's new space vehicle could snatch satellites out of orbit so concerned the Soviets that it became a picking point in the SALT II arms limitation talks.

Given the history of rocket development and space exploration, that seemed fitting if sad.

After an absence of Americans in space for six years, it also seems likely that somewhere over the deafening roar of Columbia's engines Friday morning the cry will be heard once again: The Americans are coming, the Americans are coming.