Twenty five years ago, with an arsenal of nuclear missiles aimed at one another, the United States and the U.S.S.R. agreed to overlook their differences long enough to launch the first internationally-manned space mission.
“Apollo-Soyuz was a big deal. It was the middle of the cold war at that point and the whole thing was very serious,” said Roger Launius, NASA’s chief historian.
During the nine-day mission, which started 25 years ago today, NASA astronauts docked their Apollo spacecraft with the Soyuz 19 spacecraft. Each crew visited the other’s craft and performed scientific experiments. The venture was designed to open the way for international space rescue and future jointly-manned flights.
“Apollo-Soyuz was not so much about science, although creating the docking bay was an advance, as it was about the symbolic meaning behind it,” said Howard McCurdy, a space historian and professor of public affairs at American University.
Precursor to New Era
With Russia’s launch this week of its major contribution to the International Space Station, currently being built in space with the cooperation of 16 nations, Russian President Vladimir Putin and astronauts from the United States will take part in a ceremony to mark the 25th anniversary of the Apollo-Soyuz mission.
In an ironic twist to the space race, the same men who only a few years earlier had competed fiercely to be first to the moon, helped to end the competition and set an example of international cooperation. The historic handshake between Russian Aleksei Leonov and American Tom Stafford on their 1975 mission marked the beginning of the end of the space race.
The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project “was basically a precursor to the International Space Station and the cooperation between countries [in space] you see today,” said Launius.
In 1975, within NASA and the Soviet space programs “people were very serious about following up on the cooperation. This was not meant to be a one time event, but the start of a relationship,” said Lynn Cline, deputy associate administrator for NASA external relations.
In July 1975 President Gerald Ford had just finished pulling defeated U.S. troops out of Vietnam.
The Soviet Union, under ailing Leonid Brezhnev, was mired in a period which is now called “the stagnation.”
Apollo-Soyuz brightened that dark time, said Soyuz crew captain Aleksei Leonov at a pre-anniversary celebration in Russia earlier this week.
Planning the mission required years of exchanging information and working together to overcome language barriers and the hurdle of two different measuring systems. Russia uses the metric system and Americans use inches and feet.
Those years left a legacy of brotherhood between scientists, pilots and engineers who found that, despite official propaganda, they liked each other, said Leonov.
“Remember that time — the insane mistrust, not just for people, but between countries,” said Leonov. “We discovered kind, good, smart people, who decided to show all of humanity that we are completely different.”
With the launch of the third section of the International Space Station, the Russian-built living quarters of the station, on July 12, remembering the significance of Apollo-Soyuz is especially important, said Cline.