‘This Can’t Be Real’: The Unlikely Mission of STS-60 (Part 1)

Rising atop a column of golden fire, Discovery sets the Florida sky ablaze with the dawn of a new era of co-operation in space. Photo Credit: NASA
Rising atop a column of golden fire, Discovery sets the Florida sky ablaze with the dawn of a new era of co-operation in space. Photo Credit: NASA

On 8 February 1994, the ABC television programme Good Morning America broadcast a live link-up between three Russians aboard the Mir space station—cosmonauts Viktor Afanasyev, Yuri Usachev, and Valeri Polyakov—and the six-member STS-60 crew of Space Shuttle Discovery. At the time, Mir was flying high above the southern United States and the orbiter was somewhere over the Pacific. The political situation between the two nations had thawed substantially in recent years, but it was still a noteworthy event. Most noteworthy of all was the fact that in addition to five American members of the shuttle crew … was a Russian cosmonaut, 35-year-old Sergei Krikalev. The following day, Krikalev and STS-60 Commander Charlie Bolden received a telephone call from Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. During the exchange, Chernomyrdin invited the entire crew to come to Russia, as guests of President Boris Yeltsin, upon their return to Earth.

Discovery landed safely on 11 February and, shortly thereafter, the crew travelled to Moscow. One day, Bolden and his pilot, Ken Reightler, stood on the rampart of the Kremlin, gazing upon the grandeur of Red Square: from Lenin’s mausoleum to the drab GUM department store and from the newly-reconsecrated Kazan Cathedral to the bright ice-cream domes of St Basil’s. For Bolden, a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps, and for Reightler, a captain in the U.S. Navy, the vista literally took their breath away. They had served long military careers to attack this place … and now they were coming here as partners of the Russians. To be fair, it was not all champagne and roses. The Americans stayed in the old KGB headquarters, which had been converted into an ornate hotel, bristling with marble and hardwood floors and glittering chandeliers … and bugging devices. On one occasion, Bolden remarked to his wife in their bedroom that he would love a Coke. As if by magic, a bellboy appeared at the door to offer them a Coke. “So we knew,” said Bolden, “that there was still some semblance of the old Soviet Union left over.”

But for the two U.S. military officers, Bolden and Reightler, standing alone on the ancient walls of the Kremlin, against a chill wind, words were hard to find. Then one of them spoke. “Pinch me,” he said to the other. “This can’t be real.”

Charlie Bolden was unimpressed by the Russians at first.

During his mission in command of STS-45, he had overseen the first ship-to-ship dialogue between the shuttle and cosmonauts Alexander Volkov and Sergei Krikalev aboard the Mir space station, but could hardly have expected to be flying with one of them a little less than two years later. When he was approached to command STS-60—the first shuttle flight to include a cosmonaut among its crew—Bolden opposed it. As an active-duty Marine Corps officer, “it was just my upbringing” that “I did not have any desire to work with the Russians.” For Bolden, it was as simple as that.

Charlie Bolden was not particularly enthused at the prospect of flying with Russians at first. Upon meeting Vladimir Titov and Sergei Krikalev, however, the attitude of this veteran Marine Corps aviator changed markedly. Photo Credit: NASA
Charlie Bolden was not particularly enthused at the prospect of flying with Russians at first. Upon meeting Vladimir Titov and Sergei Krikalev, however, the attitude of this veteran Marine Corps aviator changed markedly. Photo Credit: NASA

His mind was changed by new NASA Administrator Dan Golden, appointed in April 1992 and with whom Bolden had worked at the space agency’s Washington headquarters for several months that summer as Assistant Deputy Administrator. Goldin encouraged him to meet the two cosmonaut candidates for the flight, before making a final decision. Over dinner, Bolden was impressed by Vladimir Titov and Sergei Krikalev; the former was a veteran MiG-21 fighter pilot in the Russian Air Force and had commanded the world’s first year-long space mission in 1987–88, whilst the latter was a civilian engineer and one of only two men to be off the planet during the tumultuous events of 1991, when the Soviet Union crumbled and was reborn as the Commonwealth of Independent States. Bolden had spoken to Krikalev in orbit during the March 1992 ship-to-ship radio ham session and knew that he spoke English. Titov, on the other hand, spoke none. “Zero, nada,” said Bolden. The situation for the cosmonauts was equally difficult. “By the time I get through with all my studies for the classes,” Krikalev once told a NASA manager, “I normally have … from about one o’clock to two o’clock in the morning to do my English language training.” Although the relationship was affable and professional, the political situation between the United States and the former Soviet Union remained mistrustful.

It was a far cry from the first co-operative manned mission between the two superpowers, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP), in July 1975, when an Apollo docked in orbit with a Soyuz and conducted joint experiments. In the wake of ASTP, the Americans and Soviets discussed the possibility of the shuttle docking with the Salyut 7 space station, and as early as August 1976 NASA manager Glynn Lunney, who directed the U.S. half of ASTP, suggested flying a cosmonaut aboard one of the orbiters. It is one of the tragedies of history that no serious attempt to bring this idea to fruition was accomplished for almost two decades. Détente between the Soviet Union and the United States would veer sharply off course and, as the 1970s drew to a close, relations were once again at Cold War levels. The Hensinki Accords, signed in the summer of 1975 under Gerald Ford’s brief presidency, attempted to improve relations between East and West, but superpower meddling in conflicts in the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Americas served only to sour relations.

Girdled by the U.S. and Russian flags, the STS-60 patch represented a mission which marked the dawn of a new era. Photo Credit: NASA
Girdled by the U.S. and Russian flags, the STS-60 patch represented a mission which marked the dawn of a new era. Photo Credit: NASA

By the spring of 1977, a new president was in the White House. Jimmy Carter, whose attitude towards the Soviets was much less sympathetic than Richard Nixon or Gerald Ford, very quickly signed into law Presidential Directive No. 18 on National Security to reassess the United States’ position on détente. At the same time, in an effort to curtail the manufacturing of nuclear weapons and the development of new missile arsenals, Carter and Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev undertook the second round of Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT II) and would lay down their signatures in Vienna in June 1979. Within six months, however, the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan, prompting an “open-mouthed” Carter and the CIA to begin to arm a native mujahideen insurgency.

As the decade drew to an end, fears grew that the Soviets were seeking to expand their sphere of influence into Pakistan and Iran, and even that they were positioning themselves for a takeover of oil in the Middle East. For his part, Carter refused to permit any outside forces to gain control of the Persian Gulf, terminated a “wheat deal” with Russia and prohibited American athletes from participating in the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. Together with his national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter started a $40 billion covert programme to train Pakistani and Afghan insurgents to foil the Soviet invasion. The “hawkish” foreign policies of Brzezinski have even prompted mutterings over the years that he and Carter had begun arming the mujahideen before the invasion, as a way of drawing the Soviets into a protracted and gritty conflict—in essence, creating their own Vietnam.

When one views these important geopolitical events through the looking-glass of history, it is not difficult to understand why virtually no progress was made on the topic of co-operation in space after the return of Apollo-Soyuz to Earth. Today, in the era of the International Space Station and genuine co-operation in space between not merely Russia and the United States, but other nations, too, it is saddening to consider the possibility of what might have been. Still, to gain some idea of what may have been, it is necessary to return to the high-watermark of U.S.-Soviet relations: the time in May 1972 when U.S. President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin put their signatures to ASTP. At a press conference in Houston, NASA Administrator Jim Fletcher had responded to a journalist’s question by stating that Apollo-Soyuz was merely “a first step in international co-operation” and, moreover, that co-operation in manned programmes “to save duplication of effort between the two countries” was his great hope.

Only now, five decades since Gagarin and three-and-a-half decades since ASTP, are we beginning to see the realisation of some of Fletcher’s vision. Genuine co-operation was the vision of his deputy, George Low, also. During his visit to the Soviet Union in May 1975, Low spoke of the future with several of his NASA colleagues and his Russian counterparts, including Konstantin Bushuyev. A rendezvous and docking between a Salyut orbital station and the shuttle was one possibility, as was Soviet participation in a Spacelab flight. Although the latter option was not seen in a particularly favourable light, the idea of a Salyut-Shuttle mission and also the joint development and construction of an “international” space station were of interest to both sides, a possibility which Time told its readers in its summing-up of ASTP on 4 August 1975. Unfortunately, the enthusiasm of Fletcher and Bushuyev and Low and other like-minded colleagues lay at the mercy of the political climate … and in the late 1970s and early 1980s, that mercy and that climate deteriorated dramatically.

It was, however, kept alive for a time. Informal discussions continued between the Americans and the Soviets and culminated in a series of talks in October 1976 at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. These established “a meeting of minds” between the two sides on future manned co-operation, with two primary foci: a scientific venture involving the shuttle and the Salyut space station or the development of “a space platform … bilaterally or multilaterally.” By May of the following year, this meeting of minds had crystallised further, when NASA Acting Administrator Alan Lovelace and Anatoli Alexandrov of the Soviet Academy of Sciences explored the topic of a shuttle docking with a Salyut in greater depth. The result was a document, rather ponderously entitled Objectives, Feasibility and Means of Accomplishing Joint Experimental Flights of a Long-Duration Station of the Salyut Type and a Reusable Shuttle Spacecraft, which highlighted the benefits that both sides could bring to such a venture: the Soviet system could achieve long-term missions, and the Americans could carry large scientific payloads into orbit.

At one stage, in the euphoria which followed ASTP, plans advanced for a Shuttle docking to the Soviet Union's Salyut 7 orbital station. However, as the political situation between East and West froze in the late 1970s and early 1980s, such plans never reached fruition. Photo Credit: Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de
At one stage, in the euphoria which followed ASTP, plans advanced for a shuttle docking to the Soviet Union’s Salyut 7 orbital station. However, as the political situation between East and West froze in the late 1970s and early 1980s, such plans never reached fruition. Photo Credit: Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

On 18 May 1977, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance signed the space co-operation agreement, which took effect six days later … exactly five years to the day since ASTP had been formalised. The new deal would run for a further five years. “This agreement,” noted a December 1982 document, produced at the behest of Bob Packwood, then-chair of the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, “established the basis for Soviet-American space co-operation through the early 1980s. It was a very important political instrument, because it [ensured] continuity in Soviet-American space relations.” The Soviet press, in particular, wrote glowingly of the plans, and in November 1977 a meeting in Moscow began to discuss the technical aspects. By April 1978, when follow-on meetings were scheduled to take place in the United States, Flight International mentioned the joint Shuttle-Salyut venture, with a rendezvous scheduled for 1981 and a docking a few years later. At around the same time, in the spring of 1978, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Space Science, Noel Hinners, testified before the House Science and Technology Committee that future U.S.-Soviet co-operation was crucial, not least because “they have a station in Earth orbit now [Salyut 6] that may be capable of lasting 1.5 years to two years [and] we have nothing on the horizon approximating that staytime duration in space.” Sadly, this glimmer of future co-operation on the horizon ultimately was nothing more than a glimmer. The plans did not come to pass.

The cause was chiefly political. Issues of human rights violations and the repression of political dissidents, including Anatoli Shcharanski, who was accused of treason and collusion with the CIA, had long bothered the Americans and the implementation of a new Soviet constitution—the “Brezhnev Constitution”—in the summer of 1977 brought with it worrying signs that new guarantees of individual liberties were a mockery of justice. “Exercise by citizens of rights and freedoms must not injure the interests of society and the state and the rights of other citizens,” read one proviso of the Brezhnev Constitution. “Obviously,” Time told its readers on 13 June, “this statement gives legal sanction for the KGB to proceed, without having to manufacture pretexts, against dissidents exercising the right of free speech, assembly, or religion.” The situation steadily worsened.

When the Carter administration re-established formal diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union’s sworn enemy, China, in January 1979, the Brezhnev regime responded with undisguised anger, delaying the planned second round of Strategic Arms Limitation Talks until June. Within the year, the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan and relations had deteriorated still further. Reluctantly, the Americans agreed to abide by the SALT agreements, but were determined to exact punitive action in other areas. Space co-operation turned out to be one of them. Even before SALT and Afghanistan, in February 1979, new NASA Administrator Robert Frosch spoke of a hypothetical joint Shuttle-Salyut venture in the distinctly more frosty language of if, rather than when. By February of the following year, as Soviet tanks and troops established a forcible toehold in Afghanistan, the situation had scarcely moved. Frosch told Congress that the American and Soviet working groups had “been in abeyance for something over a year.” A further meeting was scheduled for October 1980, but nothing was ever formalised and it never transpired. Senator James Exon of Nebraska described the relationship as having devolved into an “arm’s length arrangement that we’ll more or less continue” and noted, tellingly, that “the direct scientific activities may be affected, but not immediately, since there was no immediate action to be taken anyway.”

In some minds, Jimmy Carter and Zbigniew Brzezinski have been seen as the key obstruction to the implementation of any joint plans. In a January 2002 oral history for NASA, Arnold Frutkin, deputy head of the agency’s international affairs office until 1978, related that a breakthrough for more advanced co-operation with the Soviets may have been just around the corner. “It [seemed] so logical to continue … because [ASTP] was so successful,” he said. “It seemed to me the thing to do next would be to move [on] into a space station, but that was a huge undertaking at the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union and it had to be done in such a way that we weren’t transferring technology.” The Soviets were interested in conceptual studies and developed a draft agreement with NASA, “to the point where they [actually] signed it! There was a signed agreement from them for a joint space station programme, but with this careful, limited, step-by-step [procedure, whereby] you would never proceed from one to the … next … unless there was complete comfort and satisfaction in the prior [phase].”

Perhaps Jim Fletcher foresaw or knew the sensitivities of the incoming Carter administration about space, for Frutkin noted that he held off from signing the agreement until he had consulted with the new president. “I don’t know whether I knew Brzezinski was going to be [his national security advisor] or not,” Frutkin continued, but the opinion of the White House was that the plan should not go ahead. “I felt pretty embarrassed, because we [had] led the Soviets into it and then we couldn’t follow through, but there [could be] no argument about it. The administration had the right to call it. They didn’t want to do it and, certainly, Brzezinski [would oppose it]. … Maybe it was not a good idea. Maybe it was premature, but if the Soviets were willing to get into it, I think it was not premature.”

It would be another decade and a half before Russia would again approach the negotiating table with a view to a joint manned project with the Americans and opening up their space programme to a wider world. Glynn Lunney is not alone in his conviction that ASTP was a vital steppingstone towards the co-operation which eventually spawned Shuttle-Mir and today’s International Space Station. “People would have had a difficult time,” he told NASA’s oral historian in October 1999, “embracing the level of co-operation that is inherent in the International Space Station without the experience that we had in Apollo-Soyuz. It probably would have been a staggering thing to think about in terms of never having had any experience before.” Still, there remains one fundamental, enduring tragedy of ASTP: it is devastating that this project, which carried so much promise for the future, should have taken so long to bear lasting fruit.

However, in the mid-1980s, a wind of change grasped the Soviet Union. It began blowing in the socialist states of Eastern Europe and gusted into a whirlwind towards the end of the decade as failed economic policies, flawed Five-Year Plans, detestable political surveillance, and religious persecution and the actions of a string of unelected dictators intensified a popular cry for reform and democratic change. The Berlin Wall, once uniformly grey, now had virtually no grey left on its western face, so ubiquitous was the colourful, angry graffiti which covered it. West and East cried out for reunification. The wind intensified in March 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev—a long-time member of the Soviet Politburo and a lawyer by profession—was elected as General Secretary of the Communist Party. However, if Western leaders had reacted to the arrivals of post-Brezhnev General Secretaries Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko with concern, then their response to Gorbachev was far warmer; for here was a man who was considerably younger than his predecessors, a man who had travelled widely on Soviet business, a man who had seen how the West had prospered through freedom of speech, political transparency, and the respect of human rights, and a man who had seen the policies of the Communist Party bring his once-proud nation to an economic standstill.

Within weeks of entering office, Gorbachev became the first Soviet leader to admit that the economy was virtually stagnant and reorganisation was crucial; a “vague programme of reform” was acutely needed to bring about rapid technological modernisation, increased industrial and agricultural productivity, and a resharpened, more efficient, and less corrupt bureaucracy. His efforts to streamline the economy, maintain quality control, battle inferior manufacturing, and combat rampant alcoholism necessitated broader reforms on the political level, but Gorbachev remained a staunch Communist. He was nowhere near willing to surrender the Soviet notion of a centrally-planned economy in favour of a free market. Speaking that summer to the economic secretaries of the Eastern Bloc states, he scoffed at the idea that “the market” might prove to be their saviour. “Comrades,” he told them, “you should not think about lifesavers, but about the ship … and the ship is socialism!”

Yet the fact remained that the ship was immovable in some areas and downright leaky in others. Perestroika (political and economic “restructuring”) was a term which had become entrenched in Gorbachev’s political ideology by the late spring of 1986. At face value, it called for the creation of more effective and dependable mechanisms “for accelerating economic and social progress,” encouraging the initiative of the individual—a real Soviet first—and balancing a need for order and discipline with opportunities for criticism and self-criticism.

By early 1987, the Central Committee proposed multi-candidate elections and the appointment of non-Party members to government posts, opponents of Stalin were rehabilitated and in 1988 glasnost (“openness”) brought a measure of real freedom to the Soviet people for the first time. Thousands of political prisoners and dissidents were freed, private ownership of businesses was permitted, and in March 1989 the Soviets cast their votes for the Congress of People’s Deputies, marking the first open elections in the Union for more than seven decades. Today, many Western analysts see perestroika and glasnost as the two principal nails in the coffin of the Soviet Union, although the ultimate outcome could hardly have been further from Gorbachev’s mind in 1985. Rather, he wanted to see socialism work more effectively for its people, with less “cronyism” and corruption and greater transparency into government affairs.

The agreements signed during the course of 1992-93 enabled this remarkable sight of a US Space Shuttle docked with the Russian Mir Space Station. East and West were brought together in human space flight endeavors for the first time in almost two decades. Photo Credit: NASA
The agreements signed during the course of 1991-93 enabled this remarkable sight of a U.S. space shuttle docked with the Russian Mir Space Station. East and West were brought together in human space flight endeavors for the first time in almost two decades. Photo Credit: NASA

As circumstances transpired, this snowballed much further than he could have anticipated: relaxed censorship on the state media led to the exposure of severe social and economic problems—previously denied or concealed—as well as food shortages, the terrible price paid to the effects of alcoholism, pollution and environmental destruction, dramatic mortality rates, and the first evidence of the “purges” imposed by Joseph Stalin on his own people, half a century earlier. Under Gorbachev, steps were taken to end a bloody war of attrition in the mountains of Afghanistan and, as time passed, his weakening of the authority of the Communist Party and the removal of its power to control the media emboldened and strengthened nationalists in the Eastern Bloc.

Simmering discontent in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—illegally annexed by Stalin—would boil over, whilst other republics, including Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, would rise in a wave of nationalistic revolt. In the final year of the 1980s, the Eastern Bloc collapsed in dramatic and spectacular fashion. The Berlin Wall would topple, one dictator would be gunned down by firing squad, and republic after republic would throw off the Communist yoke, announce elections, and set foot on the thorny path to new nationhood. By the time Gorbachev was obliged to hand over the reins of power in Russia to Boris Yeltsin, late in 1991, the Soviet Union as a political entity would be over … and years of economic turbulence, civil strife, crime, and outright military conflict would ensue.

And it was at this tumultuous stage that the first steps on a new path of space co-operation were taken. In April 1989, President George H.W. Bush had re-established by executive order the National Space Council, chaired by Vice President Dan Quayle. With emphasis upon the construction of Space Station Freedom—a project already years overdue and mired in budgetary and technical issues—the need to reduce costs and take advantage of the Soviets’ enormous assets in long-duration space flight, heavy-lift launch vehicles, and reliable Soyuz-TM craft were hugely appealing. As the Soviet Union tottered on the road to collapse, there were more “real world” problems, such as helping to keep Russia as a nation together and preventing the haemorrhaging of technology to undesirable destinations, such as Iran. The first formal discussions of co-operation between Quayle and Gorbachev came in May 1990, and a little over a year later, in July 1991, President Bush himself met with the Soviet leader at a two-day summit in Moscow. At the summit, an agreement was reached on “flying a U.S. astronaut on a long-duration … Mir mission and a Soviet cosmonaut on a U.S. space shuttle mission.”


The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.

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