The spectacular maiden flight of the space shuttle Columbia puts the United States at least 10 years ahead of Soviet Union in the race of supremacy in outer space.

It put the United States so far ahead that it raises the question of whether there is a serious race in space between the two superpowers, particularly when the military applications of the space shuttle are considered.

If the next three test flights of Columbia are anywhere near as successful as the first, it means the shuttle will become operational and begin trucking very large payloads into space by late next year. The shuttle can haul 65,000 pounds into orbit and bring 32,000 pounds back to Earth.

By contrast, the Soviet Union's rockets can fly payloads up to only 12,000 pounds into space. They can't bring anything home from orbit, because they don't have a returnable spacecraft.

The Soviet Union is believed to be at least 10 years from development of a shuttle, and U.S. intelligence experts say that at best the Soviet can develop one only half the size of Columbia. At present there are no signs that the Soviet Union is developing a shuttle of any size, though most U.S. experts believe they will try.

"An aerospace airplane like the shuttle is the correct way to move ultimately into space, a decision we made after long consideration," said one high-ranking U.S. space official who asked not to be identified. "For reasons I can only guess at, the Soviets made a decision to go with what they already had, to stay with their existing launch-vehicle technology."

Incredible as it might seem, the Soviets are using the same booster rocket to put men into space today that they used to put Yuri Gagarin into orbit 20 years ago. They have yet to develop an engine that burns liquid hydrogen, the most powerful fuel.

The Saturn 5 rocket that took American astronauts to the moon burned hydrogen in its second stage. At liftoff, all three of Columbia's main engines burn liquid hydrogen.

"In an important sense, their lack of progress in launch-vehicle technology has forced them to lower their sights," said Dr. Bruce Murray, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. "They can't go to the moon and they don't seem to be able to develop a shuttle. They can't do a lot of things we give them credit for."

Their lack of new launch vehicles and their apparent inability to deal with complex space systems has forced the Soviets to lower their sights in unmanned flight as well.

The Soviets have not made an unmanned flight to any planet beyond Mars, have abandoned their goal of landing an unmanned spacecraft on that planet, have scaled down the size of the craft they will land on Venus in the next few years and have given up landing machines on the moon to bring back lunar samples.

The number of Soviet manned flights is impressive. In the last six years, while the United States went without a manned flight, the Soviet Union put into orbit 43 men, who logged almost 1,000 days in space.

But outside of experiencing long-duration flight, the quality of the time they spent in space was unimpressive. They conducted few novel experimentals, and many were repetitions of those done by previous crews. Their surveillance photography would have been better without men handling the cameras.

"The only conclusion I can draw is that they're still learning what you might call the nuts and bolts," said one Soviet space watcher. "I guess they believe they're learning a lot of detail about life in space they think can only be learned by repeated experience."

Nowhere is the Soviet lag more obvious than in the military applications of space. The shuttle changes the rules. Not only will the shuttle carry 14 Pentagon satellites into space in the next five years, it will carry some Pentagon payloads so big they could not be lifted into orbit by anything but the shuttle.

The payloads are all classified, but it's no secret that they're communications, navigation and reconnaissance satellites. One spy satellite the shuttle will carry will weight more than 15 tons, perhaps the biggest satellite ever put into orbit.

The shuttle also opens the possibility of putting defensive weapons into space for the first time. The most obvious possibility is a laser weapon that could destroy Soviet ballistic missiles soon after they're launched. Such a weapon could force changes in the arms race that today can only be imagined.

The shuttle also gives the United States a big lead in surveillance. One Pentagon space expert described it as:

"Not only the potential for early warning but even earlier warning, a leg up that gives us a degree of stability that the world is sorely in need of. What the shuttle does is give us a beautiful surveillance tool for years to come."