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.
In 1975, as Cold War relations temporarily thawed, it seemed hard to imagine that it would be another 20 years before American and Russian astronauts would rendezvous in space again. Not until June 1995 would an American shuttle dock on the Russian space station MIR.
“We’ve shared scientific data with Russia for decades. Sharing data is easy,” said Cline. “Sharing technology is much more fraught with problems especially when that same technology could have a military and not just commercial purpose.”
As the Cold War escalated again in the 1980s, with the United States and the U.S.S.R. trying to outspend one another on military technology, relations were so tense that the United States and its allies did not include the U.S.S.R. in its space station plans at first.
But once the U.S.S.R became Russia, it was asked to join the biggest civil engineering project ever attempted by humankind. Unlike the other 16 nations involved, which paid their own way, the United States agreed to fund most of Russia’s section of the space station while Russia struggled toward democracy and a free market economy.
Committed to the Future
Since NASA’s annual budget is $14 billion and the Russian space program’s is estimated to be about $700 million, the United States essentially contracted a section of the $60 billion space station to Russia. But because of financial troubles, Russia’s section of the space station was launched two years later than scheduled.
The station is scheduled to be finished in 2005.
“We never could have anticipated that things would be as bad in Russia as they have been,” said Cline. “The relationship has been very difficult, but I think people on both sides are committed to maintaining it. Apollo-Soyuz was where it all started.”
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.