MOSCOW. (Yury Zaitsev, for RIA Novosti.) Russian and American astronauts shook hands in space for the first time 30 years ago, in July 1975.
Despite Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's stern warning to the directors of the country's space program not to let Americans get to the Moon first, U.S. astronauts did get there first. The Soviet Moon program was shut down by Khrushchev's successor, Leonid Brezhnev.
The Americans followed suit in 1974, after making six Moon landings, and the NASA budget was drastically slashed. Only 14,000 of 300,000 employees involved in this program retained their jobs, and 30 of 73 candidate astronauts were dismissed. Work on the space shuttle was delayed by three years: The first shuttle, Columbia, blasted off on April 12, 1981, twenty years after Yury Gagarin's historic first flight - the Americans were always good at timing their space exploits.
In the meantime, the idea of a joint Soviet-American space mission was gaining ground. The Apollo-13 disaster made the Americans aware of the need for cooperation.
The U.S. technical director of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) Dr. Glynn Lunney recalled that at that dramatic time the idea of outside help was dismissed out of hand. As an engineer he knew only too well that in the preceding years the Soviet Union and the U.S. had been designing and building their spaceships and docking devices in different ways.
Brezhnev supported the idea of a joint flight, and voiced the big idea that the Soviet Union was for peaceful space exploration and for the development of devices to make it possible for spacecraft to rendezvous and dock and for crew members to work together.
Soyuz-19 with astronauts Alexei Leonov and Valery Kubasov on board blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on July 15, 1975, at 3:20 p.m. Moscow time. Seven hours and a half later, Apollo followed suit from Cape Canaveral, carrying Thomas Stafford, Vance Brand and Donald Slayton.
On the eve of the launch, astronaut Gene Cernan, a participant in the U.S. Moon program, told journalists that he didn't think that any member of the ASTP project had changed his political views in the course of communication. It was clear that we ought to lay emphasis not on what divides us but on the striving to understand, respect and trust each other, he said.
The ASTP was a success despite involving the two competing space powers of the Cold War. For the first time in the history of space flights in the near-Earth orbit, a space system consisting of two docked spacecraft with an international crew functioned for two days.
The public and prominent political figures from around the world viewed the Soviet-American Test Project as an important historical event that ushered in a new era in space research, and as a major contribution to improving Soviet-U.S. relations and the world climate as a whole.
The success of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project was largely the result of the long experience of both crews. Brigadier General Thomas Stafford was the Apollo commander. Prior to ASTP he had already carried out rendezvous techniques on Gemini-6 and Gemini-9 five times. Under the Moon project, Stafford's assignment was to fly around the Moon on Apollo-10, getting as close as 12.8 km from its surface in a landing module, and take photos for subsequent landings. The dress rehearsal was a great success and Neil Armstrong's crew landed on the Moon some time later.
Soyuz commander Alexei Leonov was four years younger than Stafford. He had been the first man in outer space from Voskhod-2. Later, he was trained for Moon landings and to conduct five more space missions that were cancelled for various reasons.
The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project required more than technical competence from all crewmembers. They had to display diplomatic skills and a sense of humor that is an absolute must in space. Not everything went smoothly, but all participants in the program eventually coped with political and technical problems and achieved complete mutual understanding.
The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project was designed to create in the long term a universal rescue unit, to test technical systems and methods for joint flight, and to cooperate in research and experiments as well as in rescue operations. Joint testing of the docking systems and rendezvous techniques, the docking and undocking of the two spacecraft, and the experience of joint flight control and conducting numerous scientific and technical experiments were of vast importance for the subsequent building of the International Space Station.
The ASTP mission was not free of emergencies. A local TV camera collapsed on the eve of the Soyuz launch but it was not delayed. The crew were trusted to fix it themselves and they did.
The Apollo crew had a more serious problem. When the astronauts splashed down, poisonous fumes from the engine permeated into the cabin and they had to use oxygen masks. Talking to journalists, Stafford said that he had 10 to 15 seconds to do this. In his whole career he had to deal with 11 emergencies that put his life at risk.
Five years ago Stafford and Brand flew to Moscow to attend the 25th anniversary of the first Soviet-American space mission. Slayton, the senior astronaut, had sadly died in the meantime. During the gala ceremony at the Russian Space Agency the astronauts were given the brand new Ikar Star medal. Stafford received one more medal for Donald Slayton's family.