Forty years ago today (17 July 1975) the Soviet Union and the United States shook hands in space during the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project – the first time the two space superpowers had collaborated on a space mission. The Soviet director of the project – Konstantin Bushuyev – reckoned the only significant difference of opinion between the two teams had been that his American opposite number – Glynn Lunney, “drinks black coffee and I drink mine with cream”.
Of course, there had been plenty of disagreements and arguments over the three years of intense planning and negotiation required for the mission. Each side had to learn about the other’s spacecraft; how Soyuz and Apollo worked, how they could be joined together in space and what new techniques and systems would need to be developed to do this. And there was the language problem; how to accommodate two teams that spoke different languages. In the early days it had not been easy:
American Translator: Good evening!
Soviet Party: Hello!
American Translator: This is the Manned Spacecraft Center speaking. May we speak to Professor Bushuyev?
Soviet Party: Hello!
American Translator: Hello, can you hear me?
Soviet Translator: I hear you well.
American Translator: Good! This is the MSC NASA USA, may we speak to Professor Bushuyev?
Soviet Party: Professor Bushuyev to the telephone? I will ask him.
American Translator: Oh! That is you.
Soviet Party: Yes.
The Apollo crew – Tom Stafford, Deke Slayton, and Vance Brand – were given intensive courses in Russian and Alexei Leonov and Valeri Kubasov, their Soyuz crew-mates, were each assigned a personal English tutor. Stafford, veteran commander of the Apollo 10 mission around the Moon, put his newly acquired command of Russian to good use one July 4 evening at the cosmonaut training facility near Moscow. He and his astronaut colleagues had been letting off fireworks and crackers that “sounded like a machine gun”. To a suspicious policeman that approached he said “Dobryy vecher. Kak dela? Eto den?’ Nashey revolyutsii!” (Good evening. How are you? It is the day of our revolution!).
Leonov and Stafford’s handshake in orbit was transmitted around the world – the first time that Soviet citizens had seen live TV pictures of cosmonauts in space. Previous Soviet space missions had been reported mostly by radio and the newspapers – and then only once successfully underway or completed, or stitched together into films shown later at the cinema. While Soviet and American engineers and managers laboured over the technologies of joining two spacecraft in orbit the respective media teams had had to conduct long and protracted negotiations to ensure each side reported the mission to their own satisfaction.
Forty years on it may seem as though Apollo-Soyuz has become a footnote in space history, a one-off event that struggles against the dazzling space race of the 1960s. And yet, the mission demonstrated that two fundamentally different cultures could work together through a common language of space exploration. Twenty years later the US Space Shuttle docked for the first time with the Soviet’s Mir space station. And today the International Space Station continues to host astronauts and cosmonauts from around the world. The vital agreement between the Russian and US space agencies for its operation has now been extended to run until 2024, despite political differences between the two nations.
Alexei Leonov recently visited the Science Museum as part of the launching ceremony for Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age. This major exhibition, which opens on 18 September 2015, will reveal the most significant collection of Russian spacecraft and artefacts ever to be shown in the UK. Leonov spoke proudly of his involvement in the Apollo-Soyuz project, a diversion from the Cold War that demonstrated how opponents could still work together. But he still chuckled mischievously when recalling how ‘Every day we spoke on Good Morning America’ as the Soviet passed overhead small town America.
The blog was first published on the Huffington Post.