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The Soviet-American Space Alliance

New research reveals that the Space Race wasn't quite as embittered as we were led to believe.

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  • The crew of the Apollo-Soyuz, the first two-nation cooperative space mission.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

On New Year's eve in 1962, a European newspaper ran a scoop about the United States, the Soviet Union, and the quest to put a man on the moon. 

By the early 60s, the U.S.S.R. had established itself as the clear frontrunner in the “Space Race”, thanks to the success of the Sputnik satellite launch in 1957 and the first manned space flight in 1961. The world was waiting for the U.S. to complete its own spectacular space stunt and even the score.  

Instead, according to the Paris-Presse, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were planning a trip to the moon together

There was some truth to the story. When President John F. Kennedy met Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at a 1961 summit in Vienna, he supposedly made a proposal: “Let’s go to the moon together!” According to a witness, Khrushchev responded: “Why not?” 

Though the dawn of the Space Age is frequently dramatized as an extension of the Cold War that the nuclear superpowers were waging against each other in Cuba, Vietnam and Afghanistan, the history is more complicated. They never went to the moon together, but in space the Americans and the Soviets managed to transition from bitter adversaries to trusted partners, a feat they would never manage to replicate on Earth.

The U.S. made its first overtures after Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin blasted off in the Vostok 1 rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, a Soviet installation on the Kazakh steppe. Gagarin became the first human being to orbit earth. He nearly crashed upon reentry, but ejected at the last minute and landed on the banks of the Volga River.

Alan Shepherd would become the first American in space a month later, but Gagarin was a massive symbolic victory for the Soviets. All the same, Kennedy responded with warm congratulations. 

In a telegram also distributed as a press release, Kennedy said that the U.S. “shares with the people of the Soviet Union their satisfaction,” and that “in the quest for knowledge of outer space our nations can work together.”

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Five days later, the U.S. was further humiliated on the world stage as a result of the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, an American-backed assault on Cuba, which had aligned itself with the Soviet Union. The Bay of Pigs, and the Cuban Missile Crisis that came after, marked low points in Soviet-American relations. Still, behind the scenes, formal talks continued between Anatoly Blagonravov, a former Czarist officer working with the Soviet Academy of Sciences, and Hugh Dryden, a deputy administrator for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

In the time frame between the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy wrote Khrushchev a more detailed proposal, suggesting among other things that the two countries work together on a series of satellite systems, including weather satellites to track cloud cover, satellites for mapping the Earth’s magnetic field, and communications satellites. 

“We might commence now the mutual definition of steps...for an exhaustive scientific investigation of the planets Mars or Venus, including consideration of the possible utility of manned flights,” Kennedy wrote.

The Soviets were interested. A Soviet envoy wrote to the Central Committee of the Communist Party after meeting with the White House team.

soviet american space alliance
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  • Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy meet in Vienna, 1961.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

“[Kennedy’s advisor] considers it advisable to conclude an agreement on the rejection of the military use of space and to agree to even one joint effort for the exploration of outer space,” the envoy wrote. “For example, the launch of a Soviet-American rocket towards Venus.”

Today, we know that Venus is the hottest planet in the solar system, with surface temperatures of about 900 degrees Fahrenheit thanks in part to greenhouse gasses. But in the 60s, many people thought of Venus’s surface as lush jungle or rainforest, hidden by blankets of clouds.

In his 1963 speech to the United Nations, Kennedy proposed working with the Soviet Union to get to the moon.

“Should man’s first flight to the moon be a matter of national competition?” Kennedy asked. “Surely we should explore whether the scientists and astronauts of our two countries….cannot work together in the conquest of space.” 

According to The Washington Post, Kennedy’s speech caught many in his own government off guard, including NASA administrator James Webb. Webb had just distributed a more combative speech that said the United States “must be first in space to be first on earth.”

In November 1963, after President Kennedy was assassinated and Lyndon Johnson had been sworn in as president, Webb pleaded with Johnson to tread lightly when it came to sharing NASA’s knowledge with the Soviets, noting that in many cases space tech could have military applications. 

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Still, Webb took seriously the proposition that the two countries might collaborate on a lunar flight. He proposed that medical data obtained on Soviet Vostok flights could be exchanged for data NASA had accrued on micrometeorites and radiation. Webb also noted that both sides needed more information on what the lunar surface was like. (It was believed at the time that, thanks to frequent collisions with meteorites, the surface of the moon might have been pulverized into a weird powder that could suck astronauts or cosmonauts underground like cartoon quicksand.)

Finally, Webb proposed the possibility of the U.S. and U.S.S.R. developing compatible docking hardware, which would make it possible for the crew of an American spacecraft in peril to be rescued by a Soviet spacecraft, or vice versa. 

Small-scale collaboration between the U.S. and the Soviet Union continued for more than a decade, during which time both countries' space programs flourished. The United States made it to the moon during the Apollo 11 mission while the Soviets worked in low Earth orbit, establishing the Salyut space stations. 

Webb’s proposal for compatible docking hardware came to fruition nearly a decade later, when President Richard Nixon signed an agreement that would become the foundation for the Apollo-Soyuz program.

soviet american space alliance
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  • Richard Nixon and Alexei Kosygin sign a joint agreement on "Cooperation in the Fields of Science and Technology", 1972.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The plan was relatively simple: three American astronauts (Thomas Stafford, Vance Brand and Donald Slayton) would travel in the Apollo, a craft designed for lunar missions. Two Russian cosmonauts (Alexei Leonov and Valeri Kubasov) would travel in the Soyuz-19, designed for shuttling to and from Soviet Space Stations. They would meet in space and engage their docking mechanisms, allowing the five men to travel between their vessels. 

The primary challenge was the docking mechanisms themselves, both of which needed a redesign so they could seal together and become a corridor. The Apollo and Soyuz then needed to balance their respective atmospheric pressures. NASA and Soviet engineers worked in tandem to solve these problems as the astronauts and cosmonauts trained together.

Early on, the Soviets and Americans spied on and monitored each other. A CIA memo from 1972 shows that the agency was monitoring Soviet interest in American space suits, which were less bulky than their Soviet counterparts.

But as the program proceeded, suspicion receded. The Soviets gave the Americans access to their launch facilities and control room for the first time. The engineers and crews studied each other’s languages and visited each other’s home countries, going out together and even going hunting. Leonov drew a cartoon of the Americans in cowboy outfits, riding the Apollo like a horse.

“We probably had a lot of accent in our Russian,” said Brand. “You know, Tom [Stafford] always claims to speak ‘Oklahomaski...’ Russian with an Oklahoma accent.” 

The all-male crews even bonded over their culturally conditioned misogyny, as prevalent in the U.S.S.R. as it was in America. Since neither side wanted their craft to be the “female” (the one that opened up to let a mechanism from the other craft in when the two connected) they created the “Androgynous Peripheral Assembly System,” allowing their craft to connect without suffering the humilation of perceived femininity. 

“We thought [the Soviets] were pretty aggressive people,” Brand later said. “They probably thought we were monsters…We very quickly broke through that, because when you deal with people that are in the same line of work as you are, and you're around them for a short time, why, you discover that, well, they're human beings." 

On July 15, 1975, the Soyuz-19 launched from the Cosmodrome and the Apollo launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. There was almost a serious problem on the Apollo when a bit of wire kept the astronauts from releasing three latches they needed open to dock with the Soyuz. Luckily, they were able to remove the wire and fix the problem. Meanwhile, the cosmonauts aboard the Soyuz attempted to repair a malfunctioning camera using bandaids from their first aid kit for adhesive. 

On July 17, 1975, the docking mechanism’s capture latches engaged and held the two craft together. At 3:17 PM, the hatches between the two vessels opened as the Apollo and Soyuz were then passing over Germany’s Elbe river. There, allied Soviet and American troops had rendezvoused in the final days of fighting against the Nazis.

“That was some kind of providence,” Leonov later said. 

The mission concluded, Soyuz traveled safely back to Kazakhstan and the Apollo plopped into the Pacific, near Hawaii. As the astronauts and cosmonauts made their return trips, the head barman at London’s Savoy Hotel created a drink called “Link Up” in their honor. The drink, which frankly does not sound very appealing, is made of equal parts Southern Comfort and Russian vodka, plus ice and a teaspoon of fresh lime juice. Supposedly, samples of the drink were put on ice and shipped in coolers to the returning astronauts, along with letters of congratulations. Commemorative “Apollo-Soyuz” cigarettes were produced by Phillip Morris in collaboration with the Soviet Yava cigarette factory.

Members of the Apollo-Soyuz crew stayed close for decades, especially Alexei Leonov and Thomas Stafford. Stafford’s grandson was later named Alexei.

soviet american space alliance
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  • American Thomas P. Stafford (foreground) and Russian Aleksei A. Leonov shake hands in space on July 17, 1975 during the Apollo-Soyuz mission.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

“Soviet and American astronauts working together in friendly, confident fashion 140 miles above the Earth have inevitably raised questions about why similar friendly cooperation is not more frequent on terra firma,” noted The New York Times. “Perhaps from the perspective of the year 2000 it will seem equally incredible that as late as 1975 there could still be doubts about the prospects for large scale international cooperation in space.”

People across the world were thrilled with Apollo-Soyuz, and as a result some even developed an overly rosy view of U.S.-Soviet relations. One Congressman from Illinois speculated that the mission was only possible because of the “policy of relaxation of tension which put an end to the Cold War.”

In reality, the Cold War rumbled on, causing turbulence for space collaboration along the way. For instance, the Soviets were nervous about continuing with cooperation during the Ronald Reagan administration because of the Strategic Defense Initiative missile defense program. 

Even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, tensions persisted. When Charles Bolden was approached to command the first space shuttle mission with both Russians and Americans, he responded with a hard no.

“Forget it,” said Bolden. “I’m a Marine…I’ve trained all my life to fight them and they’ve trained all their life to fight me.” 

A Black man born in segregation-era South Carolina, Bolden had gotten into the U.S. Naval Academy by writing directly to President Johnson. Applicants to the Naval Academy need a nomination from an “official source” to be considered, and his home state’s senators and Congressmen wouldn’t nominate him. As a Marine, Bolden completed flight training and flew missions in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in the A-6A Intruder. After working at NASA, he went on to become the agency’s first African American administrator. 

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Eventually, Bolden was persuaded to have dinner with two Russian cosmonauts: Sergei Krikalev and Vadimir Titov.

“We spent the night talking about our families, our kids, and what we wanted the world to be like for them,” said Bolden. “By the time the evening was over, I think we were all of like minds…I went in the next day and said ‘I’m in.’” 

In spite of his initial reluctance, commanding the space shuttle on its STS-60 mission for the Shuttle-Mir project would become one of the most noted aspects of Bolden’s legacy.

Shuttle-Mir called for Russian cosmonauts to hitch rides on the U.S. Space Shuttle. The shuttle would take them to Mir, a Soviet space station which had become a Russian space station by surviving three times its intended lifespan and the political disintegration of the country that created it. 

Like the Apollo-Soyuz team before them, the Shuttle-Mir crew worked together to prepare for their mission. This time around, the Russians relocated to the United States, enrolling their kids in public schools and studying English.

Bolden tried to learn Russian, but struggled.

“I learned privet and da and nyet,” Bolden said years later. “I can ask for a pivo, a beer, but that’s about it.” 

soviet american space alliance
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  • American stronaut Donald K. "Deke" Slayton and Russian cosmonaut Alexey A. Leonov in the Soyuz Orbital Module.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz made more progress. Diaz came to America from his native Costa Rica to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He spoke almost no English but managed to teach himself while he studied, earning a doctorate in Applied Plasma Physics and, eventually, becoming an astronaut.  

“He could identify with everything [Krikalev and Titov] were experiencing as an immigrant,” said Bolden. 

Shuttle-Mir was a success, and Krikalev became the first Russian to fly aboard an American space shuttle. The program went on to fly 11 missions throughout the 90s.

Before Mir finally splashed down into the Pacific in 2001, it paved the way for the establishment of the International Space Station, run jointly by American, Russian and other countries’ space agencies. The ISS was a chimera of Russian plans for Mir-2 and American plans for “Space Station Freedom.” 

After the Space Shuttle program was shut down in 2011, U.S. astronauts had to hitch rides on Russian craft to get to the ISS. What had once been groundbreaking collaboration became a matter of course.

More recently, the Russian-American space alliance has shown signs of strain. When SpaceX stepped in to shuttle astronauts to and from the ISS, it reduced America’s need for lifts from the Russians. Russia has also threatened to walk away from the ISS program altogether if the United States doesn’t lift a series of sanctions related to cyberattacks and Russia’s military activity in Crimea. This could be a bluff, but Russia does have another potential space partner to whom they could turn.

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Just this summer, China launched the core module for a space station of their own. Construction will be finished by 2022, and Russia has already lent expertise to the project. China and Russia have also agreed to work on a potential South Pole lunar base together. If they pull that off, they could end up neighbors to Jeff Bezos, whose Blue Origin company has plans for a base in that neighborhood.

The United States has its own plans to go to the moon with Japan, the U.K. and other partners under the banner of the Artemis Project. Russia has not signed on to participate. 

This current strain could recede, as it has in the past. Or it could mean the end of the space alliance whose foundations were laid under Khrushchev and Kennedy. The delicate relationship carefully steered through the Cold War by diplomats and scientists could fall apart, launching a new space race between China-Russia, the Artemis coalition, and private enterprise. 

When John Kerry ran the State Department for the Obama administration, he posed a question to Charles Bolden, who was by then NASA administrator. Kerry was struggling to find common ground in talks with the Russian government.

“How the hell do you do this?” Kerry asked. “How do you get along with these guys? How do you seem to have a successful program when we can’t do anything down here?” 

“I don’t have an answer for you,” Bolden replied. “Except that we’re working on a common mission… And we know each other. And care for each other. It’s personal.”