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. 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, as described in last week’s history article, 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). That pivotal mission occurred 40 years ago, this week.
If the return to Earth had been grim for the Apollo crew, its grimness would be duplicated in the realisation that ASTP would not live up to one of its promises: it would not be the first in a string of ambitious U.S.-Soviet joint missions. In fact, more than 15 years would elapse before negotiators again returned to the table to seriously discuss future co-operative efforts in manned space exploration. As a bitter footnote, whilst in Honolulu, a pre-cancerous lesion was discovered on Apollo crewman Deke Slayton’s lung. Thankfully, it was benign and had actually turned up in a pre-flight X-ray, but had been overlooked. Had it been spotted before launch, he would have been grounded for the second time in his astronaut career.
Détente between the Soviet Union and the United States veered sharply off course in the second half of the 1970s as relations regressed to Cold War levels. The Hensinki Accords, signed in the summer of 1975, attempted to improve relations between East and West. They included agreements on the inviolability of frontiers, the peaceful settlement of disputes, and non-intervention in internal affairs, but the meddling of both the United States and the Soviet Union in the Yom Kippur War, the Chilean coup d’état, the Ogaden War in Ethiopia, the Angolan Civil War, the Nicaraguan Civil War, the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and Afghanistan only soured relations.
The arrival of President Jimmy Carter in early 1977 brought a much less sympathetic attitude toward the Soviet Union, and it was under his administration that Presidential Directive No. 18 on National Security was signed into law, re-assessing the United States’ position on détente. At the same time, in an effort to stall 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 laid down their signatures in Vienna in June 1979. Within six months, however, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, prompting an “open-mouthed” Carter and the CIA to arm a native mujahideen insurgency.
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. Carter terminated a “wheat deal” with Russia and made the unpopular move of prohibiting American athletes from participating in the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, then started a $40 billion covert program to train Pakistani and Afghan militants to counter the Soviet threat.
When one views these 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 the ASTP crews to Earth. Today, in the era of the International Space Station and genuine co-operation in space, it is saddening to consider the possibility of what might have been. Certainly, ASTP Flight Director Neil Hutchinson once commented on how well he worked with his Soviet counterparts, to such an extent that he wished for another such mission. “It’s like going to the Moon once and never going back,” Hutchinson said. “Ninety percent of the battle is over with … getting all the firsts done. I could run another Apollo-Soyuz … with a heck of a lot less fuss. Though some of the worry in both Houston and Moscow had been in vain, the two teams had confirmed that they could work together in analysing an unforeseen problem.”
Others saw it differently. Robert Hotz, then-editor-in-chief of Aviation Week & Space Technology, thought that the fact that ASTP was a one-off stunt was the real tragedy … that NASA and America had bet everything on a “political fanfare,” when it could have invested the money into a second Skylab space station—already built and waiting to launch—for greater long-term scientific return. “Now that it is over,” Hotz editorialized, “it is apparent that the decision to fly Apollo-Soyuz, instead of another Skylab, was as foolish and feckless as those other facets of the Nixon-Kissinger détente, the SALT talks, the trade deals, and that great treaty that brought peace to Vietnam.”
Still, to gain some idea of what might have been, it is necessary to return to the high-watermark of U.S.-Soviet relations: the time in May 1972 when the inaugural politicians’ signatures were laid for 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. 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 space shuttle was one possibility, as was Soviet participation in a Spacelab flight. Although the latter option was not seen in a particularly favorable light, the idea of a Salyut-Shuttle mission and also the development of an “international” space station were of interest to both sides, a possibility which Time told its readers on 4 August 1975. Unfortunately, the enthusiasm of Fletcher and Bushuyev and Low and others lay at the mercy of the political climate … and in the late 1970s that mercy and that climate deteriorated dramatically.
It was kept alive for a time, however. 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 crystallized 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.
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 formalized. 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 stay-time 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 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 ties with the Soviet Union’s sworn enemy, China, in January 1979, Brezhnev responded with undisguised anger, delaying the planned second round of SALT 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, the new NASA administrator, Robert Frosch, spoke of a hypothetical joint Shuttle-Salyut venture in much more frosty language of if, rather than when. By February of the following year, as Soviet troops established a forcible hold on 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 formalized and it never happened. 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 a January 2002 oral history, Arnold Frutkin, deputy head of NASA’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 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 program, 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 NASA Administrator Jim Fletcher knew the attitude 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. “The opinion of the White House,” Frutkin continued, “was that the plan should not go ahead. I felt pretty embarrassed, because we 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.”
It would be another decade and a half before the United States and Russia would again approach the negotiating table with a view to a joint manned mission with the Americans. ASTP’s U.S. manager Glynn Lunney is not alone in his conviction that ASTP was a vital steppingstone toward 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.”
Politics has always exerted an enormous influence on the purse-strings of the space program, for good and ill, and the aftermath of ASTP was certainly a prime example of the negative impact of senior leadership upon the realization of humanity’s greatest adventure. The situation between the United States and Russia remains fraught with risk, and it must be hoped that the current situation in war-torn Syria—with Moscow backing hard-line dictator Bashar al-Assad and Washington favoring the Islamist-aligned rebels—does not boil over into a “proxy” conflict and cause irreparable damage to an otherwise fruitful partnership in space.
This is part of a series of history articles, which will appear each weekend, barring any major news stories. Next week’s article will focus on the 30th anniversary of shuttle mission 51F, which experienced a hairy “Abort to Orbit” during ascent, but returned to Earth after one of the most productive science missions in history.