MOSCOW -- First in a series of occasional articles

Along Leninski Prospect, a towering bronze totem of Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space, reviews the passing traffic. Not far away, the cosmonaut's remains are buried in the supreme place of honor, at the Kremlin Wall. In public places generally, his image seems to be outnumbered only by that of Lenin.

The deification of Gagarin is just one example of how the historic embrace of "Russian rocketry and revolution" dominates the surface of Soviet life. In museums and public squares, in party-approved art and in the state-run news services, space and its heroes are accorded the kind of homage bestowed fleetingly, if ever, in the West.

This state-ordained commitment has produced the world's most active and resilient space program. From a spectacular series of missions to Venus and Halley's Comet in the mid-1980s, to Tuesday's successful landing of cosmonaut Yuriy Romanenko after 11 months of orbiting weightless, it is a program which in Western circles has taken on the aura of a juggernaut.

But inside the spartan offices and laboratories here and the yellow brick training facilities an hour to the north of Moscow where the ideal is translated into reality, the view is different.

Soviet scientists, cosmonauts and others involved in the space program say their nation's successes come hard, born of exhausting days, constant schedule pressures and a struggle for manpower and other resources. Some portray their work as a struggle to overcome the limits of the system -- the rigidities of central control by the state, the lack of incentives to work and produce, the minimal industrial base for high technology and the long inability of scientists to communicate freely with their colleagues in other countries.

Seeing the space program from this perspective -- through the eyes of those responsible for its success -- makes it clearer why, at a time when they are the stars of the cosmic stage and the United States is struggling to recover from failures, the Soviet civil space community is reaching out aggressively for international -- and particularly American -- help and cooperation.

For all its secrecy and military overtones, the Soviet space program, as described in two weeks of interviews here and by experts in the United States, seems at ground level less of a threat to Western competitors and more of a kindred scientific enterprise, overcoming its unique obstacles in the struggle to conquer a formidable frontier.

This is the paradox of the Soviet space program: It has soared to preeminence even though it is the relatively crude product of a society where, superpower or not, the clerks in even the largest cities still use abacuses to make change, major hotels keep track of thousands of guests in handwritten ledgers and the economic system is struggling to catch up with the 20th century on a multitude of fronts, from computers to cucumber quotas.

"I would not too much dramatize the problems in the American space program and sciences," said Roald Sagdeev, the energetic scientist-diplomat who heads the Moscow Academy of Sciences' Space Research Institute (known by its Russian acronym IKI) and serves as an adviser to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on strategic defense. Sagdeev moved to open Soviet space sciences to the world even before Gorbachev came to power.

Each nation has chosen the way that suited it best, he said. The United States invested in a few high-quality, long-lasting spacecraft while the Soviets, "for the same sum of money or even less," developed "a multiplicity of much cheaper spacecrafts with shorter lives. It is very difficult . . . to see what approach is better."

Soviet space scientists, according to both Soviet and Western analysts, are engaged in an internal "resource battle" -- for money, talented people, launch vehicles and instruments -- similar to that in other nations, This explains, in part, why they are becoming more open and why they recoil at suggestions that there might be another "race," even if they do seem to be winning it.

"I don't see from my own personal view that I have a more advanced program," said veteran planetary scientist Vasily Moroz, a graying redhead with a bemused air, in his cramped office lined with filing cabinets, glossy posters of American planetary missions and a photo of Gagarin.Benefits Flow From Other Nations

Head of the planetary division of IKI, which shares with the military a large domino-shaped building on Moscow's southern outskirts, Moroz said he supervises some 60 scientists and technicians. He emphasized the benefits his team has gained from working with other nations, such as the French and West Germans, who supply instrumentation the Soviets cannot build. He said he has nothing like the fancy mission blueprints he has seen in the United States.

Asked what he would say to those who fear he would try to steal U.S. technology if the Americans join the Soviets in, say, a Mars mission, he deadpanned, "Very probably . . . Why not?"

Moroz and his team are working on the 1988 Phobos mission to Mars, the envy of many scientists in the languishing U.S. planetary program. But the team is spread thin.

Phobos, scheduled to go to the launch pad early this year, is having problems in the testing, he said. The next major mission in the series, originally scheduled for 1992, will have to be postponed until 1994 because the same team will be working on that one as well as some other planned missions in high-energy astrophysics and radio astronomy.

"Now people are busy on Phobos," he said. "Even if we started today {on the next Mars mission}, time is too short to make a good mission" by 1992.

The days are long, the pressures constant and the egos he deals with formidable, he said. Asked about the personal rewards of such pioneering work, Moroz shook his head and sighed.

"This is a very difficult moment, with many technical failures and problems," Sagdeev said. "But we try very hard."

Except for Phobos, an ambitious series of planned missions to Mars that have stirred scientists in the West have been funded only for the research phase, Sagdeev said.

"The funding process is rather lengthy . . . It's an interactive process, similar to yours," he said. "We have to show the mission is feasible and within reach {financially}, before we get final funding." Like space sciences in the United States, space sciences here get only a small percentage of the space program budget, he said.

A few floors away, Valentin Shevchenko, a plasma physicist in charge of data processing, gestured proudly toward a bank of Bulgarian-built computer processors, using Soviet software, installed last summer against an unlikely backdrop of windows covered with gauzy white balloon drapes.

"It's unbelievable," he said. "With this we can get a peak performance of 120 megaflops {120 million mathmatical operations per second}. We can investigate problems much more complex than before."

Such superfast computers are more than a decade old in the United States, where systems 10 or more times as fast are selling at the rate of 50 to 100 a year. National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials have trouble counting their hundreds of supercomputer systems, which are linked in what spokesman Charles Redmond said is possibly the largest computer network in the world.

But this, the pride of Soviet space scientists, is believed to be one of the first in the Soviet Union.

The Soviets trail the United States in vital advanced electronics and computer technology by about a decade, experts said. Their most able software programmers, such as IKI's young, softspoken Georgi Chochia, are treated with special deference.

Space program managers here have ways of handling flight control and other operations, but without advanced computers there are some calculations, such as fluid flows in astrophysics, that the Soviet scientists could not do, according to Kenneth Wilson, a physicist and director of the Supercomputer Center at Cornell University. Even a computer system such as the new one at IKI is limited by the lack of a vast base of software such as exists in the United States, he said.

But the Soviets have shown remarkable perseverence and ingenuity in overcoming technological shortcomings in space activities, according to Western analysts.

Their achievements were long ignored, or scoffed at, in the United States, because of an old stereotype of boilerplate-with-rivets and vacuum-tube technology as well as the secrecy and isolation of the nation's scientists. But in 1986, as Western launch pads were silenced by one failure after another, the unexpected drive and flexibility of the maturing Soviet space program suddenly registered on the U.S. consciousness.

Walter MacDougal, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning political history of the space age, "The Heavens and the Earth," concluded that Soviet scientists owed the rapidity of their progress to the combination of "Bolshevik myth" and the command economy of the world's first technocracy, forged by Stalin after World War I.

Advances continued despite deaths of thousands of specialists in Stalin's purges and prison camps. Even Chief Designer Sergei Korolev, a moving force in Soviet rocketry whose identity was long kept secret, was forced to work along with many of his colleagues in sharagas -- special prison camps for scientists and engineers -- during World War II.

Thirty-one years ago, when a peasant society shocked Americans by launching the first man-made object into Earth orbit, prowess in space suddenly came to signify not only nuclear capability but a society's technological superiority in general. This perception triggered America's frantic, successful race to beat the Soviets in landing the first humans on the moon.The Potency of Symbolism

Today in the West, where technology has advanced on many fronts and the relative backwardness of the Soviets has become better known, achievement in space seems to have lost much of its symbolic power. But in the Soviet Union, the symbolism remains potent.

Last spring, Gorbachev made a pilgrimage to the Baikonur Cosmodrome, a vast launch complex on the steppes of Central Asia, to underscore the point. The site, where Sputnik was launched in 1957, is "a symbol of our homeland's greatest exploit," he said. "Here in the boundless steppes of Kazakhastan, one experiences a sense of pride in the intellect and achievement of Soviet people, . . .We do not intend to slacken our efforts and lose our vanguard positions in the conquest of space."

At the summit last month, the Soviet leader twice proposed to informal groups that the United States and his country cooperate on a manned mission to Mars.

NASA historian Sylvia Fries, attending a recent Soviet space forum here, said, "For the Russians, the space program is an enormous part of what they have to show to their people. In the U.S., it's only one among many activities and almost marginal."

Much more than in the United States, the Soviet state emphasizes the economic benefits of space in such areas as television transmission, prospecting for minerals, forecasting agricultural yields, monitoring snow melt and spotting fish and forest fires.

At the entrance of the sprawling Economic Achievement Exhibition to the north of the city, Moscow's equivalent of the Smithsonian Institution complex, a sculpted rocket blasts silently skyward on a curved plume of titanium several hundred feet high, dominating the skyline. There is a national celebration of "cosmonaut day" in the spring and last year, on the 25th anniversary of Gagarin's flight, there were fireworks and parades.

In Star City, the closed military training facility for Soviet cosmonauts, there is a replica of Gagarin's office, arranged as it was at the exact hour when the jet plane he was flying crashed, at 10:41 a.m., on March 22, 1968. It is a lingering tradition for Soviet cosmonauts departing on a mission to salute the empty chair.Strength in Numbers

The Soviets launch an average of two rockets a week, far outstripping the United States in simple numbers; they have an undisputed lead in experience with long-term manned flight and the problems of men in weightlessness, and they have the world's only permanently manned space station (Mir, or "peace") in orbit. They are also overtaking the United States in planetary exploration, experts said, while at the same time increasing participation in their missions by Western nations.

However, the science they conduct aboard the space station is much less sophisticated than what the United States has done, analysts say. And the high number of Soviet launches is made necessary by the simplicity of their technology, experts in both hemispheres agreed. For example, the operating life of their satellites is much shorter than those of the United States, and with little computerization, the Soviets take much longer to analyze data they get.

"Massive data {from satellites} stored in the Priroda State Center and in a number of other establishments is decoded only after long delays," said cosmonaut Konstantin Feoktistov. "What's the use of it then?"

In recent echoes of 1957, some in the American space community have again begun to warn of the Soviet lead and urge a competitive response. Pentagon officials maintain that the "major driving force" behind Soviet space efforts is military.

However, Soviet scientists, cosmonauts and space marketing officials resisted suggestions that there might be a renewed space race and denied they are winning it. Many dismiss American talk of a Soviet lead as a ploy by which U.S. space enthusiasts hope to increase their funding.

"Both nations are more mature now," said Yevgeni Velikhov, vice president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. "What we both need is not competition but achievements that we can point to in space."

If there is a consistent criticism of the U.S. approach by Soviet officials, it was the lack of balance that resulted from NASA's decision in the 1970s to depend on the space shuttle as its primary launch vehicle. "I don't want to make a mistake like banking on the shuttle," Sagdeev said.

Even in the manned program, where the Soviet lead is the most dramatic, the Soviets take pains to be conciliatory. Cosmonaut chief Vladimir Shatalov, a two-star Air Force general, said, "We have no clandestine secret plan to get the upper hand over the United States and get to Mars first . . . A problem in those dimensions is a problem for all the countries of the world."

A number of scientists and officials in East and West are pushing peaceful cooperation in space as an alternative to the arms race and especially to the militarization of space in which both nations are engaged. For the Soviets, at least, technological and budgetary constraints provide added motivation. Some say there is another.

"I believe the Soviets are more interested in international recognition that the United States sees them as equals," said Sam Keller, NASA's deputy associate administrator in the office of space science. He has led the U.S. delegation in recent negotiations with the Soviets for increased cooperation in space. "They want us to respect them."

Some U.S. officials and space analysts said the Soviets know that if they rouse the United States to another Apollo-style competition, superior American technology would beat them again. They also said that, particularly in view of glasnost, the Soviets do not want to raise expectations unrealistically, risking greater embarrassment from public failures.

In the highly compartmentalized and still mostly secret Soviet space bureaucracy, with its uncounted ministries and design bureaus, Sagdeev's science missions compete for launch and other services with the military, analysts said.

The Soviet space program is run primarily by the military, with the Air Force handling cosmonaut training and vehicle recovery, the Strategic Rocket Force handling all space launches and most known top officials in the Soviet space bureaucracy having strong military or defense industry backgrounds, according to Western analysts.

"There are circles in the Academy of Sciences and in the government at large that believe {civil space} expenses have already grown too large," said Jacques Blamont, chief scientist of the French space agency, which for two decades, longer than any other Western nation, has cooperated with the Soviets.

"The issue is not boost capacity," he added. "Sagdeev and Gorbachev are aiming for intellectual power. They believe in the power of science . . . This is a political battle of the highest importance."

If the scientists can demonstrate that political prestige flows from the space program's increasing international stature, it strengthens their hand internally, according to Blamont and others. But this requires a dramatic reduction in secrecy.

Until the last few years, the Soviets did not announce missions until after they had been launched successfully, did not reveal their failures, used misleading names for space facilities and sometimes refused to acknowledge their existence. Soviet scientists speak now of their embarrassment at not being able to talk freely to colleagues at international conferences about the most innocuous missions or experiments.Dropping the Veil

Under the guidance of Soviet scientist-diplomats such as Sagdeev and a new breed of capitalist-style salesmen hawking Soviet space wares to Western customers, a relative avalanche of new information has come skittering into view through scientific conferences and publications, slick sales brochures, Western-style press releases and official news reports. Western scientists are asked to help plan missions as well as to contribute instruments.

Sagdeev first dropped some of the veils on the space program with his robot mission to the planet Venus and Halley's Comet, planned long before Gorbachev came to power with his policies of glasnost and perestroika (economic restructuring). It was a stunning achievement in terms of science and public relations. The launches were televised live and Western reporters were invited into IKI to cover the March 1986 comet encounter.

"I was asking, why are we always trying to do something simple, move cautiously? Why not make bold moves -- like the Americans?" Sagdeev said with a smile.

In scientific meetings with Westerners as well as in private interviews, Soviet scientists can now be seen arguing openly over policy differences, mission schedules and such topics as the likelihood of life on Mars. They speak freely about some, though not all, of their future plans and grumble about problems, such as the shortcomings of Mir.

The Soviets even responded to one of their recent foul-ups with uncharacteristic humor. This was the case of Yarosha, the space monkey, which freed an arm during a mission in orbit and then landed more than a thousand miles off-target, prompting a series of entertaining dispatches from the Soviet news agency.

The outspoken Sagdeev has complained about faulty Soviet equipment and the difficulty of getting the delicate, one-of-a-kind instruments he needs from the Soviet aerospace industry. He has contracted with a highly regarded electronics plant in Frunze, Tadzhikstan, to provide the instruments and a second, in the town of Tarussa, to produce spacecraft tailored to his needs.

Over a lunch of cold-cuts and caviar in his office on a holiday when their institute was largely empty, Sagdeev and several proteges lamented the problems of getting and keeping talented young people. They complained about the lack of day care for working couples.

"Some of our young scientists make less than the drivers of Moscow's double-buses," Sagdeev said. "We can't pay the good ones who work hard any more than we pay the rest. So we have to find other ways. We give them extra part-time jobs."

The candor of the scientists is an oasis on the broader horizons of Soviet society and much of the decision-making process remains hidden, as Sagdeev, who last February won a seat on the Supreme Soviet and was among Gorbachev's advisers at the Washington summit, acknowledged.

Still, the concentration of power at the top gives innovators such as Sagdeev certain advantages.

According to a recent report by a NASA Advisory Council task force of international experts, "With all its shortcomings, this system allows strong dynamic personalities in positions of senior authority to influence events and programs to an extent well beyond what individuals of comparable stature could do in the United States or elsewhere in the West."

This results in more flexibility in scheduling, adding experiments and project plans, the task force said. "Surprisingly, paperwork and bureaucracy were at a minimum in the Soviet space program. It is a program on the go."

Wrestling with the system at home, courting ardently abroad, these movers and shakers of the Soviet space program are embarked on a trajectory that might have surprised, and daunted, even the first cosmonaut.

The change is already dramatically visible in the Soviets, France's Blamont said. "They are behaving as they do inside their own system, only they're doing it in front of us. They're becoming real people."