For almost two decades, the United States and Russia have collaborated in the grandest scientific, engineering, and human endeavor ever undertaken in human history: the construction of the International Space Station (ISS). Since the days of Shuttle-Mir, these two former superpowers—which once viewed each other with mistrust through the lens of differing political ideologies—have forged an enduring partnership. It has not been an easy journey and down-to-Earth politics has often strained relations, but it seems likely to continue. Yet the seeds of this partnership were first sown way before Shuttle-Mir and the ISS … back in the early 1970s, when America and the then-Soviet Union emerged for the briefest of times from the “deep cold” of the Cold War and staged a manned space mission together. It was known as the “Apollo-Soyuz Test Project” (ASTP) and it took place exactly 40 years ago, this month.
Early on 17 July 1975, high above the coast of Portugal, Apollo 18 successfully docked with Soyuz 19. Aboard the U.S. craft were astronauts Tom Stafford, Vance Brand, and Deke Slayton, whilst the Soviet vehicle carried cosmonauts Alexei Leonov—the world’s first spacewalker—and Valeri Kubasov. The instant of docking, Stafford later wrote in his autobiography, We Have Capture, was exceptionally smooth and he promptly retracted the guide ring, actuated the structural latches, and compressed the seals to achieve a rigid configuration. “Tell Professor Bushuyev,” he radioed, referring to the Soviet ASTP manager, “the docking was very soft.” Leonov congratulated him on a good show. It was so good, in fact, that when they checked the alignments later that evening, the centre of the alignment sight sat right on the very center of a bolt that held the center of a target on Soyuz. In other words: Stafford had hit his mark, dead center.
Each of the crew exchanges between the two craft had been worked out months in advance, and it was planned for Slayton and Stafford to pass through the docking module for the first meeting with Leonov. “Given the different pressures in the two spacecraft,” Slayton wrote, “you couldn’t just open the hatches on both ends of the docking module and go through.” For that reason, Brand remained sealed inside the command module for the first historic handshake. However, when Slayton opened the hatch to access the docking module, he and Stafford were hit by an unpleasant odor. It reminded them of burned glue. Quickly, they radioed Leonov that they had “somewhat of a bad atmosphere,” but the odor dissipated within minutes. It was later blamed on one of the experiments in the docking module. Playfully, Stafford floated to the far end of the tunnel and rapped his knuckles on the hatch leading into the Soyuz orbital module. Leonov rapped back. In Russian, Stafford asked: “Who’s there?”
Shortly before opening the hatch into the Soviet craft and the historic, televised handshake, a message was read over the ground-to-space radio link from Leonid Brezhnev. “To the cosmonauts Alexei Leonov, Valeri Kubasov, Thomas Stafford, Vance Brand, Donald Slayton,” it read. “Speaking on behalf of the Soviet people, and for myself, I congratulate you on this memorable event. The whole world is watching with rapt attention and admiration your joint activities in fulfilment of the complicated program of scientific experiments.” In conclusion, Brezhnev’s message expressed the fervent and sincere hope that ASTP would represent a forerunner of “future international orbital stations.”
For now, though, on this midsummer’s afternoon in 1975 it seemed that the two old foes were setting the seal on a bright future. At 2:17:26 p.m. CDT, high above the French city of Metz, Tom Stafford tugged open the hatch and squinted as he peered into the Soyuz orbital module. There, surrounded by a snake-like collection of umbilicals, were their old friends Alexei Leonov and Valeri Kubasov, both beaming.
The meeting was awkward in weightlessness, as Stafford and Leonov warmly shook hands and tried clumsily to hug.
“Glad to see you!” Leonov exulted in English.
“Ochen rad! (Very good!)” replied Stafford in Russian. “Tovarich! (Comrade!)”
No sooner had they adjusted to their new environment than the call came from Houston: President Ford was on the line and wished to speak with them. He had been a strong supporter of the mission—or, at least, the measure of détente that it afforded—and asked questions and offered congratulations for nine whole minutes, almost twice as long as scheduled. Responding to the president’s queries was not easy. “It was kind of tricky,” wrote Slayton, “since we kept having to hand headsets from Tom to Alexei to Valeri to me to hear the questions and give the answers.” Ford echoed many of Brezhnev’s points: It had taken the United States and the Soviet Union many years to open this door to useful co-operation in space, and he asked how useful the androgynous docking mechanism might be for future missions. Stafford replied that it had performed beautifully.
After the president signed off, the commemorative exchange of gifts began, with Stafford presenting a quintet of tiny American flags and Leonov reciprocating with Soviet flags. Other exchanges included a United Nations banner, launched aboard Soyuz and returned home aboard Apollo. Both crews signed a Certificate of the First International Docking for the official aviation record books, kept by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), and a joint plaque (half of which launched aboard Apollo and half aboard Soyuz) was ceremoniously connected by Stafford and Leonov. “They had a little difficulty making these pieces match,” Slayton told journalists in Houston, Texas, on 9 August. “Fortunately, the docking system worked better than this did!”
It was then time for a joint dinner, without Vance Brand, around a green metal table in the Soyuz orbital module, and with the whole world watching a lump undoubtedly jumped into Stafford’s throat … for Leonov presented his new American comrades with tubes of vodka! Ten years earlier, Leonov had met a group of astronauts—including Deke Slayton—and shared a collective hope to someday drink a toast together in space. Even after 10 years, Leonov never forgot the pledge.
Aware that the whole world was watching on live television, as was President Ford, Stafford seemed reluctant to consume anything alcoholic, but his counterpart persisted; it was a Russian tradition, said Leonov, to drink before eating. Unknown to Stafford, the canny Leonov had peeled the labels from a few tubes of borscht and blackcurrant juice before launch and replaced them with labels for various Russian vodkas. In his autobiography, Stafford later recalled his mild disappointment as he slurped … not vodka, but borscht … through the tube. As Leonov later wrote, “I told him it was the thought that counts!” Leonov’s second surprise was a set of pencil sketches of Stafford, Brand, and Slayton, which he had drawn during their two years of training together.
Shortly before 6 p.m. CDT, after the dinner of reconstituted strawberries, Roquefort cheese, and sticks of apples and plums, Stafford and Slayton bade the Russians farewell for the night and floated back to the command module, closing and sealing the docking module hatch as they went. Leonov and Kubasov followed suit, securing the hatch of their spacecraft. The two Americans rejoined Brand, who had spent a lonely afternoon keeping an eye on the systems. Right from the start, both sides had insisted on having one crewman aboard their respective craft at all times; this was a point raised by NASA’s ASTP manager Glynn Lunney at a press conference immediately after the Nixon-Kosygin summit in May 1972. Years later, Brand described his solo work as “kind of minding the store … holding the attitude for the ‘stack’ of vehicles, which consisted of Soyuz and Apollo and docking module.”
Brand’s turn would come during their second day of docked activities, 18 July, when he floated across to join Kubasov in the Russian craft and Leonov came over to the American side. Aboard Apollo, American fare included potato soup, bread, and grilled steak. For 4.5 hours that day, Kubasov and Brand worked together in the cramped Soyuz, which they nicknamed the “Soviet-American TV center in space,” after performing a broadcast from it. Diplomatically, Kubasov wondered aloud to his U.S. audience which of their two nations was more beautiful … and then concluded that neither possessed the full majesty of “our Blue Planet.” Meanwhile, Stafford gave Leonov and the Russian audiences back on Earth a televised tour—in their own language—of the Apollo spacecraft; for the American people, these guided shows from outer space had been commonplace for several years, but in the Soviet Union, such “live” events from beyond the atmosphere had never been seen before.
The interest of the Russian populace in the joint mission had even inspired them to adopt some of the trappings of the capitalist West. Midway through the mission, Time reported that several Soviet perfume factories had created a new scent, with the rather unimaginative name of “EPAS” (“Experimental Project Apollo-Soyuz”), which they intended to sell for $50.75 per bottle in Russia and a mere $10 in the United States! Other efforts to cash-in included a new brand of cigarettes, burdened with the equally unoriginal name of “Soyuz-Apollo,” which Moscow’s Yava factory hoped to sell in America. …
Aside from the public relations side of the mission, there was “real” work to be done, too, and it took the form of five joint experiments, including an experimental multi-purpose electric furnace, located inside the docking module. It carried a series of experiments, which focused on the melting and mixing of paired alloys to analyse the effects of convection in the weightless environment, observing the behaviour of specific materials (such as aluminum-antimony, known to have promise for high-efficiency solar cells), and melting and re-solidifing magnetic and semi-conducting crystals. Earth studies were also undertaken, with Slayton photographing ocean currents off the Yucatan Peninsula and in the Straits of Florida; likewise, Brand filmed his own travelog, covering part of the United States’ eastern seaboard, although he was hampered by cloud cover for much of the time.
Other work included studies of aerosols in the stratosphere, observations of the effect of cosmic rays on fungi, the effects of weightlessness on small mice and fish and the retina of the human eye, and astronomical and solar physics experiments. They exploited a planned undocking and re-docking exercise, performed on 19 July. After 44 docked hours, the two spacecraft separated at 7:12 a.m. CDT and Slayton performed an almost flawless re-rendezvous and re-docking with Soyuz. During their period in individual flight, the Apollo crew placed their craft directly between Soyuz and the Sun, such that the diameter of the service module created an artificial eclipse. This enabled Leonov and Kubasov to photograph the solar corona, in conjunction with ground-based observations to compare the effects from instruments located both “inside” and “outside” the atmosphere.
Re-docking did not go entirely as planned, and the seriousness of the situation seems to vary, depending upon whose autobiography one chooses to read. With Slayton at the command module’s controls, the rendezvous proceeded normally, at first, but then he found it difficult to see the cross-line reference on the alignment sight, due to the glare of the sunlit Earth. It was precisely the same kind of blinding “wash-out” that Stafford had experienced during the transposition and docking a couple of days earlier. “He proceeded with the docking,” Stafford wrote, “which appeared to go smoothly … but the moment after contact and capture, both vehicles oscillated. It only happened for a few seconds and was probably due to a slight misalignment. The docking was well within limits, so I didn’t sweat it.” Slayton himself made brief reference to the incident, but did not dwell on it: “I tweaked the hand controller the wrong way, once we had captured Soyuz again, causing the two spacecraft to shake a little.”
From Slayton’s perspective, the incident was a new lesson in fuel management and provided valuable data for future space rescue scenarios. In his autobiography, Two Sides of the Moon, Leonov related that, during the contact and capture at 7:33 a.m., Slayton “inadvertently fired one of Apollo’s side roll thrusters, which had the effect of pushing both vehicles off-centre, folding them towards one another.” Certainly, television views from inside the command module confirmed that this was a harder docking than the first one. There had been a “real threat” of damaging the joint docking mechanism, Leonov added, and the possibility of a “catastrophic depressurization of our orbital module.” To conclude, the cosmonaut noted that no serious damage was done and even that mission controllers in Moscow received an apology from Houston for the mistake.
Three hours later, at 10:27 a.m., the two spacecraft undocked for the second and final time. After they had gone their separate ways, they remained from time to time in radio contact and Stafford took the opportunity to gain revenge on Leonov for the vodka/borscht incident. Vance Brand had brought a cassette tape of girls giggling in the shower and Stafford radioed Leonov to ask what he was doing.
“Tom, we are resting, because we’ve worked so hard.”
Stafford replied that his crew were still working.
“Listen,” said Stafford and motioned to Brand to play the tape, whilst Slayton held down the microphone button. As the sound of running water and giggling girls crossed from ship to ship, Leonov was aghast. “Tom,” he asked, “what are you doing over there?”
With images of scantily clad women frolicking around the command module’s cabin now in his head, Leonov was still uncertain. “Tom?” he said quietly. “You are kidding, aren’t you?”
This is part of a series of history articles, which will appear each weekend, barring any major news stories. Next week’s article will continue the story of Apollo-Soyuz, focusing on the hairy return of the Apollo crew and the aftermath of the joint mission.