Last April 24, more than 200 miles above the Earth, there was a life-and-death drama of the sort that has captivated Americans, given them heroes and helped shape their children's dreams.

But this was a Soviet show.

Days earlier, a major space observatory, the Kvant (Quantum), had flown out of control past the Soviet space station Mir, raising fears of a collision. Now, in the second attempt to dock with Mir (Peace), something was blocking the two vessels, holding the unmanned module about an inch and a half short of a complete connection with Mir. It was "like a loose tooth," as one U.S. Soviet-watcher described it.

The two 20-ton spacecraft touched precariously as they orbited at five miles per second. Col. Yuri Romanenko and Alexander Laveikin, Mir's cosmonauts, took an emergency spacewalk to deal with the drastic situation. Floating in close, they reported they could see "an obstruction" inside the docking port.

At the climactic moment of their four-hour outing, on instructions from ground controllers, one of the cosmonauts risked death by reaching his hand into the one-foot space between the Kvant's probe and the cylindrical side of the port. He triumphantly withdrew what turned out to be a plastic "baggie," about 16 inches square, possibly left by a ground technician.

Finally, as the cosmonauts hovered nearby, ground controllers drove the probe in for a perfect connection.

On July 20, 1969, the United States landed two men on the moon and claimed to have "won" the space race. Eighteen years later -- and 30 years after the Space Age began -- it is the Soviet Union that reigns as the planet's space virtuoso.

With stunning regularity, the Soviets send rockets thundering skyward from launch complexes near Plesetsk, a few hundred miles north of Moscow, and the Baikonur Cosmodrome on the steppes of Central Asia. They launch about two a week, in freezing weather or warm, and on one recent day, two within 15 minutes.

Rather than catering to the whims of nature or exotic technology, the Soviets seem to follow the imperatives of a bureaucratic rhythm, according to Nicholas Johnson of Teledyne Brown Engineering in Colorado Springs, a leading expert on the Soviet space program. One-third of all Soviet launches occur on Wednesday; they rarely occur on Monday or Saturday, and "never on Sunday," he said. "The AFL-CIO could not ask for a better schedule."Growing Number of Firsts

In 1986, 103 missions from all nations reached Earth orbit, and the Soviets accounted for 91 of them. At that, 91 represented a six-year low for them, Johnson said.

In orbit, the Soviets have busily racked up a number of firsts. They have transferred a crew from one space station to another; broken records such as that for long-duration space flight; done pioneering studies, such as those on the effects of weightlessness, and generally sustained a furious pace of docking and undocking, repairing and resupplying spacecraft, performing dramatic spacewalks and inaugurating launch vehicles, including one bigger than anything the United States will have for years.

Numerous accidents and problems have caused only the briefest hesitations. And the traditionally plodding Soviet style is also becoming noticeably bolder, the experts say. The rescue of Kvant, for example, "was a gutsy thing to do," said Johnson. "It is one of several recent examples of them taking initiative and risk to accomplish a very difficult mission, where in previous instances they have tended to give up."

On the ground, the Soviets have shown fitful signs of opening their space activities to the world and, with increasing success, are enlisting participation from many Western nations. The Triumph of Low Tech

It is widely agreed that Soviet space technology is no match for that of the United States in terms of sophistication -- in microelectronic circuitry, for example, and in the life span and "smartness" of its spaceflight systems.

Nowhere is this gap more evident than in the high launch rate for Soviet military reconnaisance satellites, made necessary by their life span of only three weeks, compared with three years for their U.S. counterparts.

And yet the Soviets' low-tech space program is more resilient than that of the United States. They have outpaced this country in sheer experience on several fronts in space, and are poised to do so on others, according to a wide sampling of space experts.

"Some people always argue we don't have to worry because the Soviets lack advanced technology. I strongly disagree," said Marcia Smith, a Congressional Research Service expert on aerospace technology and former executive director of the National Commission on Space.

"The fact that they have accomplished what they have despite their technology is a sign that they are working very hard at it," Smith said.

The Soviet drive in space stands out more starkly because the launch pads of the West have fallen silent, with rare exceptions, since last year's Challenger disaster and several other rocket failures.

But the differences are the result of contrasting policy choices made by leaders of the two superpowers over the course of the last two decades. American leaders, faced with tight budgets, have had other priorities.

In the Soviet Union, human conquest of space retains its old, politically exploitable magic, and space research holds great economic appeal. The Soviets have been slow and steady, the United States flashy and erratic.

"The space program has a much higher profile in Soviet life than in the U.S.," said Paul Stares of the Brookings Institution. "It's good for morale to have Soviet cosmonauts orbiting the Earth, and it proves Soviet technological prowess."

"We tend to manage by budget; they tend to manage by objective," said James Head of Brown University, who has worked in a cooperative program with Soviet space scientists for more than a decade. "We tend to push the reset button frequently."

Some authorities recently have asserted that the Soviets now have a lead in space that is, as the British-based Jane's Space Flight Directory put it, "almost frightening." Others say such comparisons are simplistic, that the two nations are embarked on the same odyssey using different political systems and engineering philosophies to get there.

Certainly, the shape of the contest is much less clear than in the days after Sputnik plunged this nation into a frenzy of technological anxiety. Mir, unlike Sputnik, is not a symbol of Soviet Cold War nuclear capability; and in this race there is no definitive finish line, such as landing a man on the moon.

In fact, there is a solid core of support in this country -- in the scientific community as well as Congress -- for joining the Soviets in peaceful endeavors such as a mission to Mars.

"We have to recognize what our problems are independent of what the Soviets are doing," said Head. "The Soviets just give you a frame of reference."

Attempts to compare the two superpowers in space are laden with ideology and gamesmanship. Since the days of the "missile gap" during the 1960 presidential campaign, members of the U.S. military and other groups have been accused of exaggerating the Soviet threat to boost their budgets at home.

Moreover, the Soviets continue to cloak much of their space activity in secrecy. The bulk of available information on the subject comes from U.S. Defense Department officials and an informal network of Western observers.

Yet the commitment to space appears to have increased under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, according to U.S. and Soviet sources. And once a given program has passed through an elaborate institutional process and obtained government approval, "we have no problems with money," said Valeriy Barsukov of Moscow's Vernadsky Institute of Geochemistry at a recent conference in California.

"Cosmonautics plays a big role in expediting scientific and technological progress today," said Gury Marchuk, president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, in a recent Tass interview. "Space systems have acquired growing significance as a lever for raising efficiency in many sectors of the national economy."

The Soviet program, unlike the American one, does not make a bureaucratic distinction between civil and military operations, but U.S. defense officials say that perhaps as much as 75 percent of Soviet payloads are military.

In the United States, the administration has increased the military space budget to about double that of the civil space program, and an increasing percentage of payloads are military.

Although the Pentagon says the Soviets outspend the United States in space, other experts say no reliable figures are available to compare expenditures because of the complex differences between the societies.

But certain contrasts are clear. The Soviets have continually mass-produced their throwaway rockets, including several aged workhorse lines derived from ICBM missiles, geared for simplicity and quick launch.

They have maintained separate manned and unmanned launch systems, allowing great flexibility in their launch capacity, experts say.

The United States, by contrast, put almost all its money on four copies of the breathtakingly advanced, partially reusable shuttle, and until last year had planned to phase out production of expendable rockets (except for a limited number insisted on by the military).

Since the Challenger exploded, grounding the shuttle fleet for at least 29 months, that policy has come to be viewed as a serious mistake, and the United States is

moving to restore a mixed fleet.

Some U.S. engineers make fun of the Soviet's clunky, boilerplate-and-rivet technology, with rockets that are "aimed" from the launch pad, using platforms resembling the turntable on a record player, instead of the fancy American-style in-flight programming.

"The question is, do you need those on-board gizmos. They obviously don't," Johnson said.

The Soviets have not suffered appreciably from American advances in technology and have borrowed from it when they needed to. Only recently have the Americans -- ensnared in their fancy engineering, according to critics -- seen that they might benefit from adopting some of the low-tech ways of the Soviets.

Craig Alderman, deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, recently described a new space defense policy that emphasizes a shift to cheaper, simpler and more reliable space systems, saying, "The Soviets apparently have reached this conclusion sooner than we have. While we've built an exquisitely complex manned and unmanned group of launch vehicles, they've consistently pumped rockets into space at a rate that's an order of magnitude greater than ours has been."

U.S. officials expressed envy as the Soviet Union's latest addition to its fleet, the giant heavy-lift vehicle Energia, roared aloft May 15 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome near Tyuratam in Kazakhstan. Energia may be used to carry into orbit large space stations, shuttles, interplanetary missions, space weapons and possibly, according to Soviet scientists, huge experimental orbiting satellites that could convert sunlight into electricity and beam it back to Earth.

The United States developed its own heavy-lift launcher two decades ago -- the giant Saturn 5 rocket that carried astronauts to the moon. But -- in what critics say typifies the American approach -- NASA shut down the production lines in the early 1970s to move on to the shuttle. The remaining two Saturn 5s are dismantled and scattered like dinosaur bones in space museums in Florida and Texas. The next U.S. heavy-lift booster is on the drawing board, years away from reality. 'Better's the Enemy of Good'

"The pattern here has been to say, 'Okay, we did that; now we'll trash-can it,' " said former astronaut Deke Slayton, who flew on the joint Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975.

The Soviets, Slayton said, put into practice a saying that is often quoted among NASA engineers: "Better's the enemy of good," meaning that it is possible to over-improve a thing to the detriment of your main goal. "The Russians evolve, they don't revolutionize," Slayton said.

The Energia apparently needs more testing -- it dumped its first payload in the ocean -- but with its advent the Soviets can boast 10 operational types of launcher. They are also developing a shuttle orbiter to be carried aloft on the Energia and, like the United States, a space plane.

While the United States allowed its first space station -- Skylab -- to self-destruct in 1979, after orbiting unoccupied for most of its 75-month life, and is struggling to get another into orbit by the mid-1990s, the Soviets have orbited a series of seven space stations of increasing sophistication.

Using these habitats, their cosmonauts have accumulated more than 4,700 person-days in space, or nearly three times that logged by U.S. astronauts.

Cosmonaut Col. Leonid Kizim last year became the first person to spend a year in space, cumulatively during three missions since 1980. Kizim and crewmate Vladimir Solovyov also set records for the most time in space outside a vehicle and for the first transfer of a crew from one orbiting space station to another. Cosmonaut Romanenko is on Mir in the midst of a third long-duration space flight.

Mir itself is smaller than the U.S. Skylab and would fit in a shuttle cargo bay, Johnson said, but it is

the core of a much larger complex to be assembled gradually. Its six docking ports and other features will give the Soviets great versatility in their ability to conduct research.

U.S. defense officials have long favored the use of machines and dismissed manned spaceflight as "an unnecessary and costly encumbrance," but are now revising that view, Alderman said, in part because of "an unsettling awareness of the massive Soviet investment of the Soviet military establishment in manned spaceflight."

While the Hubble Space Telescope and other major American science projects sit earthbound, lacking transportation into space, and others await funding, the Soviets are proceeding with a dozen or more major scientific missions -- many in concert with West European countries -- that some U.S. scientists say will threaten the superiority this country has long held in space sciences.

"The quality of the equipment and personnel on our Spacelab {shuttle science} missions is much higher than that available to the Soviets" on their space stations, The rescue of Kvant "was a gutsy thing to do. It is one of several recent examples of {the Soviets} taking initiative and risk to accomplish a very difficult mission, where in previous instances they have tended to give up."

-- Nicholas Johnson, Teledyne Brown Engineering

according to author and space consultant James Oberg. "Unfortunately, now we are backtracking in that area."

Western scientists were surprised by the sophistication and openness of recent Soviet missions to the planet Venus and Comet Halley, said Bruce Murray, vice president of the Planetary Society and former head of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The United States has not launched a planetary mission in a decade, and "clearly will be second to the Soviets {in planetary exploration} by the mid-1990s, absent a major presidential intervention," he said. Looking Toward Mars

Most intriguing to many American space experts is the fact that the Soviets seem embarked on a long-range plan to methodically build the expertise needed to send a manned mission to Mars, possibly early in the next century.

Taking advantage of the vacuum left by Western launch problems, the Soviets have dramatically stepped up their international outreach. They have proposed to carry U.S. microgravity experiments on Mir and are marketing their launch services to the world, reportedly at subsidized prices that are about half what the United States can offer. Although there is some interest among American launch customers, the U.S. government has forbidden any such deals because of concern about giving the Soviets access to sensitive technology.

European nations, as they have become more confident and independent of the United States, have become much more willing to cooperate with the Soviets on space projects. "It's the rage," Smith said.

Kvant, for example, has X-ray telescopes built with the help of scientists from Britain, the Netherlands, West Germany, Switzerland and the European Space Agency. Next year's planned Phobos mission to Mars will include hardware from 14 different nations.

The Soviets' low-tech, production-line approach makes it possible to react to accidents in a way strikingly different from the United States. In contrast to NASA, which has been virtually shut down by a series of accidents, the Soviets' post-failure practice is to pull another booster and payload "off the shelf" within weeks and resume launching.

"With a launch vehicle that's been operating for 25 years, they can view it as a statistical failure, rather than a design flaw," said Johnson. "When you launch this many, you're bound to have failures."

Still, in the history of operations on this dangerous frontier, only four Soviet cosmonauts, in two separate re-entry accidents, have died in flight, compared with seven Americans in one launch failure.

The two cosmonauts that saved Kvant have been in orbit for 23 weeks of an expected 40-week tour of duty, which will set a new space endurance record. A Syrian astronaut is scheduled to join them on Wednesday, to be followed by a Frenchman and a Bulgarian.

And soon, Kvant is expected to train its four X-ray telescopes on the supernova, the exploding star that burst in the skies of the Southern Hemisphere in February, and provide the first detailed look into the secret heart of a stellar death.