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Soyuz-Apollo
45 Years After the Handshake in Space That Put an End to the Space Race

by Laís Oliveira



© Sputnik / Alexey Leonov
On 15 July 1975, a Soviet Soyuz and a US Apollo spacecraft docked, forever changing the direction of space exploration.
The project started on 24 May 1972, after the Soviet Union and the United States signed an agreement in Moscow on "cooperation in exploring and using outer space for peaceful purposes." Among other things, the agreement provided for an experimental flight and a docking of both nations' spaceships.
"Instead of dealing with the Cold War, we deal with space cooperation. Let me remind you that only one sector had the vigor to do that: cosmonautics," Viktor Blagov, director of the Soyuz-Apollo coupling, recalled.
It took three years to make the Apollo-Soyuz Testing Project a reality. The memorable handshake between Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov and American astronaut Thomas Stafford is often considered the end of the space race that started in 1957 with the launch of the first artificial satellite in history, Sputnik 1.
"Apollo-Soyuz was first of all aimed at showing that the two space powers could work together to achieve a common goal that could potentially benefit humanity," Stafford said in 2016.
Stellar Crew
© Sputnik / Viktor Khomenko
Both countries chose their best astronauts to take part in the historic mission. The Soviet Union chose Alexei Leonov and Valeri Kubasov, both Heroes of the Soviet Union. The United States chose not two, but three astronauts: Thomas Stafford, Vance Brand, and Donald 'Deke' Slayton.
Alexei Leonov
© Sputnik / Alexandr Mokletsov
Leonov had made cosmonautics history ten years earlier when he had become the first human to spacewalk. In 1968, he was appointed head of the Soviet mission to the Moon, which was aborted after the successful US moon landing in 1969.
Valeri Kubasov
© Sputnik / Mikhail Kuleshov
The docking with Apollo was the second of the three space missions, which Kubasov took part in. Years before, on board the Soyuz-6 spacecraft, together with Georgui Shonin, he carried out the first orbital welding.
Thomas Stafford
© Sputnik / NASA
Appointed Head of the American crew, Stafford had previous orbiting experiences. Moreover, he had taken part in the North American lunar programme, having arrived in lunar orbit a few months before Neil Armstrong first set foot on its surface.
Vance Brand
© Sputnik / NASA
An experienced Lockheed Martin test pilot, Brand entered the NASA astronaut team in 1966. The Soyuz-Apollo mission was his first space mission. He later went into orbit three times as a space shuttle commander.
Donald Slayton
© Sputnik / NASA
After being named one of the Mercury 7 – the first US astronauts – in 1959, Slayton suffered from health problems. He eventually got licensed to go into space at the age of 51, becoming the oldest astronaut at that point.
Deadly Atmosphere
© Sputnik / Pavel Balabanov / A. Kachugin
Not only were the two countries' political systems and languages different, the two space programmes' technical parts were incompatible, even the mission's essential element: the docking system.
"The systems were incompatible. They were male-female systems: it was quite a problem to decide who would be the 'male' and who would be the 'female'. It was hard to reach an agreement. Everyone wanted to be active and strong; everyone wanted to be the macho," Viktor Pavlov, the Soyuz-Apollo coupling system engineer, recalled.
The solution found by Soviet and American engineers was to develop a completely new coupling unit. APAS, a Russian abbreviation for the androgynous-peripheral coupling system, was later used in numerous missions and even in ISS couplings.
The difference in the two spacecraft' atmospheres was another major technical difficulty the joint project faced. Soyuz spacecraft's air composition was close to the Earth's air, while on board the Apollo, they breathed a high oxygen mixture.

Coupling in those conditions would suffocate the Americans, while excess oxygen posed a high fire hazard to the Soviet spaceship. The solution was to create an intermediate compartment, where cosmonauts and astronauts could acclimatize before moving on to the neighboring ship.
Meeting at the Elbe
© Sputnik / Vladimir Vdovin
Finally, at 3:20pm on 15 July 1975 (Moscow time), the Soyuz-19 spacecraft was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome with Leonov and Kubasov on board. Exactly seven and a half hours later, the Apollo spacecraft carrying Stafford, Brand and Slayton was launched from Cape Canaveral.
The coupling took place on 17 July, after a few small incidents when the spacecraft was passing over Moscow. There was a livestream of the mission commanders' handshake that forever changed the history of space exploration. The memorable moment took place about 20 minutes after the spaceships had coupled, when they were going over the Elbe, a place of historical importance in the two nations' relations.
"Our parents met on the Elbe in 1945. Soviet and American soldiers, their children, met on the Elbe River thirty years later," Leonov said in an interview to Roscosmos.
The 1945 event mentioned by the Soviet cosmonaut happened at the end of World War II, when Red Army soldiers and American troops met on the banks of the Elbe River in Germany.

The joint Soyuz-Apollo flight lasted 43 hours 54 minutes and 11 seconds. On 19 July, the spaceships separated and repeated the coupling process six minutes later. Almost three hours later, they finally undocked. Soyuz landed successfully on 21 July; Apollo landed three days later.
Cosmic Friendship
© Sputnik / Ilya Pitalev

Stafford presents Vladimir Putin to his sons, Stas and Michael
© Sputnik / Alexey Druzhinin
The friendship between the Soviet and American crews, that appeared with the Soyuz-Apollo programme, has lasted for many decades, particularly between Leonov and Stafford.

Following their historic handshake, the two astronauts visited each other many times. The close friendship with Leonov even encouraged Stafford to adopt two Russian children, with his Russian friend helping him out with the adoption process.
The Soyuz and Apollo commanders then paid a double tribute to each other: one of Stafford's grandsons was named Alexei, while one of Leonov's granddaughters was named the same as Stafford's daughter, Karina.

In October 2019, when Stafford learned of Leonov's death, he decided to go to Moscow to bid a final farewell to his friend, despite his poor health and old age – he was 88 at the time.
Stafford delivers a speech at Leonov's funeral (2019)
© Sputnik / Ilya Pitalev
"Alexei, we will never forget you; we remember you, my friend," Stafford said in Russian at Leonov's funeral ceremony.
Better Together
© Sputnik / Alexandr Marshani
In July 2015, during one of their many encounters, Stafford and Leonov recollected the importance of space collaboration between the two nations, recalling a phrase they saw on a poster at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena at one of the last training sessions before the joint mission.
"We are better together," Stafford said in Russian, Leonov repeated the phrase in English.
If it weren't for the Soyuz-Apollo mission 45 years ago, space cooperation would never had advanced that much. Docking at hundreds of kilometers above Earth gave way to implementing programmes such as the Mir-Shuttle mission, and the creation of the International Space Station, where space agency professionals from around the world are currently at work.

The historic project gave a solid boost to good relations between Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts and showed us that we are, in fact, better if we join forces.
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