In Washington, politicians and scientists talk about preserving peace in outer space, keeping it free from war and open to exploration by all.

Here in the Rocky Mountains foothills, that kind of talk is regarded as the wishful dreaming of another age.

"Until recent years, our efforts have assumed, probably mistakenly, that space is a sanctuary," Edward C. Aldridge Jr., undersecretary of the Air Force, wrote recently. "We do not have to stretch our imagination very far to see that the nation that controls space may control the world."

To that end, the United States has launched an effort to prepare for war in space. The Air Force formed its Space Command one year ago. The Navy is to establish its own next month. The entire Defense Department is spending more money on space than NASA--$9.4 billion for the next fiscal year compared with NASA's roughly $7 billion--and its space budget is increasing faster than overall defense spending, almost 10 percent each year.

Nowhere is the new space race more apparent than in this once quiet tourist spot, now well on its way to becoming--in the words of the chamber of commerce president--"the military space center of the free world."

The military-industrial-political complex has discovered space, and it has converged here in the form of determined Air Force generals, an eager and growing community of businessmen representing giant aerospace companies and a zealous local congressman, Rep. Ken Kramer (R-Colo.), who wants to rename the Air Force the "U.S. Aerospace Force."

"Rarely do you find an issue that is good for your district, good for national security and defense and good for humanity," Kramer said.

Many scientists and some politicians say the space race is not good for humanity or for defense. They say the United States is more dependent on satellites for communicating and verifying arms control agreements than is the Soviet Union, and would be better served by negotiating treaties to protect space than by preparing to defend and exploit it.

"A space weapons race would place at risk every nation's satellites, discouraging scientific, commercial and other peaceful uses of space," the Center for Defense Information said this summer. "The only finish line in a space weapons race would be war."

Administration officials say, however, that the Soviet Union began the race years ago and that no treaty can protect U.S. satellites completely. Only a "deterrent capability," they say, or clear superiority in space can guarantee peace in space.

"The Soviets are obviously way ahead of us in these many ways," said Air Force Gen. James V. Hartinger, dynamic chief of the new Space Command, "so we had better get in space to protect our interests there."

The military has been involved in space since the first satellite went up, and the recent Pentagon push into space began during the Carter administration. But President Reagan most clearly set out U.S. military goals for "the high frontier," and under his administration the Pentagon has provided the funding and bureaucratic structure to make space another arena for war.

"We should move into war-fighting capabilities," Air Force Gen. Robert T. Marsh told a congressional hearing last year. "That is, ground-to-space war-fighting capabilities, space-to-space, space-to-ground."

Defense contractors responded enthusiastically to the call. Shortly after Reagan delivered his "Star Wars" speech--calling for a defense against nuclear missiles that almost surely would be based in space--Howard A. Rubel, a defense analyst for Cyrus J. Lawrence in New York, issued a newsletter for investors titled, "Money From Heaven."

"We believe the Reagan initiative makes good sense, for the industry as well as for the country," agreed Wolfgang H. Demisch, who analyzes aerospace stocks for The First Boston Corp. "For the U.S. aerospace industry, the redirection of the strategic arms competition toward the defensive can hardly come soon enough."

In James E. Hill's office at the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce, the walls are lined with memorabilia from his flying days. The throttle from an F4 fighter jet stands prominently on his desk.

Until 1980, Hill was a four-star general and commanded NORAD, the air defense nerve center built into nearby Cheyenne Mountain. Hill tried then to bring a space command to Colorado Springs, even briefing presidential candidate Ronald Reagan on the need for space defense. But the bureaucracy was not ready.

When he retired, Hill continued the fight, joining the extensive Colorado Springs community of retired military officers as head of the local Chamber of Commerce. He traveled to Washington and enlisted the help of Kramer, a conservative Republican on the Armed Services Committee.

Kramer said he learned about space by necessity, when ex-astronaut and then-senator Harrison Schmitt (R-N.M.) tried to grab space-related contracts for New Mexico that Kramer wanted for Colorado Springs. Now he says he is convinced that space must be exploited for national defense, and he and Hill share that happy coincidence of home-town interests and philosophical belief.

"Whatever we do on the national level obviously has a direct benefit, because Colorado Springs has become the hub," Hill said.

With Kramer and Hill pushing, and with Reagan stressing U.S. military interests in space in a July 4 statement last year, things began to happen.

Today the Air Force is moving thousands of people into the area, and dozens of firms--including Martin Marietta, Lockheed, Rockwell, Boeing and TRW--have opened branch offices here.

"Most of them are just simple marketing offices now," Hill said, "but they'll grow."

Earth movers are clearing 640 acres of prairie east of town, where the Air Force is building a $1.2 billion Consolidated Space Operations Center. There the military will watch over its own space shuttle flights, too secret to be handled in Houston's Johnson Space Center.

A few miles away, just across the interstate from the Air Force Academy, Ford Aerospace & Communications Corp. is about to break ground for a new building. A subsidiary of Ford Motor Co. that builds satellites and other space equipment, the company recently won the first $55 million installment of a much larger contract to upgrade the Space Defense Operations Center inside Cheyenne Mountain.

There the Air Force tracks 5,000 satellites and pieces of debris that are orbiting the earth as it watches for collisions, monitors other nations' activities and makes sure no one interferes with U.S. "assets," as Pentagon officials call them.

At the Air Force Academy, officials speak proudly about their new space major and the space science courses that attract more students every year.

"People at that age, and particularly the people we draw, are always a little science-fiction oriented," said Col. Robert B. Giffen, a professor at the academy. "So it's not surprising to see them moving to what they see as the new frontier."

The Pentagon, which depends on more than 40 satellites circling the globe, is planning to launch dozens more, many from the shuttle. A new series of 21 navigation satellites, for example, will allow a ship captain, pilot or soldier to determine his location in three dimensions within a few meters.

As the satellites become more sophisticated, military officials say the danger grows.

"We are subjecting ourselves," Kramer said, "to a potential Pearl Harbor in space somewhere down the road from some adversary, who literally may have the capability of silencing us and blinding us, as part of a coordinated first strike or attack, by knocking out our space assets."

"Survivability" therefore is a key word, and Gen. Neil Beer, a planner at Space Command, said "a substantial amount of money" from next year's budget has been reprogrammed for that effort. Satellites will be "hardened" against nuclear blast, built with "stealth" characteristics that make them hard to find, or shot 100,000 miles into space, to be stored in high orbit and lowered when they are needed.

Other satellites will be maneuverable, military officials say, so they can escape enemy attack, or almost autonomous so they can continue to do their job even if a ground station is destroyed.

But defense is not enough, Pentagon officials say, because the Soviet Union could target U.S. ships from satellites--just as the United States can target Soviet ships.

"If people are doing things in space that's killing our forces on the ground, we can't allow them to do that," another Air Force general said.

The Pentagon is building an anti-satellite rocket that would be launched from an F15 jet fighter and is pursuing even more exotic possibilities for the future. Those include laser beams to shoot down satellites and a "space plane" that could take off like an airplane, roam into space to shoot missiles back to land and then return quickly to its base--"doable by the year 2000," Beer said.

All of this activity concerns critics, who say they believe that an arms race in space cannot be contained once it gears up. They say the United States can surpass the Soviet Union, but only for a time, and that nuclear war eventually will become far more likely if neither side can depend on its information sources.

"As the tempo of weapons development quickens, time is running out for reaching a comprehensive space accord," Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) said recently. "The restriction of anti-satellite weapons testing is the first step--but the ultimate goal of negotiations should be a total ban on all weapons and hazardous objects in space."

But the Carter administration suspended negotiations on anti-satellite weapons when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and the Reagan administration has not resumed talking. In Colorado Springs, as businessmen extol the scientific and financial possibilities and the Air Force expands its bureaucracy, negotiations are not discussed frequently.

"It's almost like saying, 'Let's reserve the oceans for peaceful purposes,' " Giffen said. "It would be nice, and you can negotiate as long as you want, but it's not going to happen."