Key Developments in USA/USSR Space Cooperation During the Cold War


Apollo-Soyus Test Project Mission Patch.

The post-Cold War era has seen the United States and Russia undertake fundamentally significant cooperative ventures in space. This was an enormously significant development for the pursuit of aggressive human space activities, no doubt, but it tends to overshadow a sizable level of interaction between these two space powers during the Cold War when they were intense rivals.

Several early efforts to cooperate between USA and USSR had only mixed success. Kennedy and Khrushchev met over lunch at the Vienna summit on June 3, 1961, and discussed, in addition to other topics, the possibility of an American/Soviet lunar expedition with both astronauts and cosmonauts. Kennedy broached the idea of whether they “should go to the moon together,” and while Khrushchev was at first reluctant, but later admitted, “All right, why not?” In follow-up meetings Khrushchev backed away from a joint program without mutual disarmament, allowing that rockets “are used for both military and scientific purposes.” This concern for the overlapping of military and scientific applications of technology were at the heart of negotiations of US/USSR space cooperation ever since.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev meets with President John F. Kennedy at a summit in June 1961.

Other efforts at U.S./Soviet cooperation in space exploration followed during 1960s. Many were motivated by political advantage to be gained by, in the language of McGeorge Bundy in 1962, making “it clear that we are forthcoming and energetic in plans for peaceful cooperation with the Soviets in this sphere.” NASA Deputy Administrator Hugh Dryden developed a low-key relationship with the Soviet Academy of Sciences in early 1960s aimed at cooperation. A series of negotiations, 1962-1965, between NASA and Soviet scientists led to limited agreements to cooperate in certain aspects of satellite meteorology, communications, geomagnetic surveying, and space biology and medicine. NASA and the Soviets exchanged lunar samples and photos from various missions.

The most significant cooperation between the superpowers throughout the 1960s was expressed in several treaties, mostly detailing what the parties would not do rather than in joint space efforts:

  • Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons Tests in Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water (1963).
  • Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and other Celestial Bodies (1967).
  • Agreement on the Rescue and Return of Astronauts (1968).
  • Agreement Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics of Measures to Improve the U.S. of A.-U.S.S.R. Direct Communications Link (1971).

By far the most significant US/USSR space cooperation came on July 17, 1975, during the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. It represented a culmination of five years of effort. In April 1970 NASA Administrator Thomas O. Paine met with Soviet scientist Anatoliy A. Blagonravov to discuss a cooperative venture to develop a compatible docking system for space rescue missions. An October 1970 agreement between US and USSR established three working groups to begin design of a joint docking module. As work continued, on May 24, 1972, President Nixon and Soviet Premier Aleksei N. Kosygin signed “Agreement Concerning Cooperation in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space for Peaceful Purposes.”

By 1973 the prime crew complement was named—Thomas P. Stafford, mission commander, Vance D. Brand, command module pilot, and Deke Slayton, docking module pilot. In April 1973 Soviets announced Soyuz crew: Aleksei A. Leonov, commander, and Valeri N. Kubasov, flight engineer. Both Soyuz and Apollo systems were launched on July 15, 1975, and established an Apollo-Soyuz-Houston-Moscow communication link. The two spacecraft dock at 12:09 p.m. EDT on July 17 over the Atlantic Ocean, and at 3:17 p.m. the hatches were opened and crews exchanged commemorative items.

Deke Slayton and Aleksei Leonov meet during the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.

After 19 hours and 55 minutes of free access between the two spacecraft and five joint experiments on July 18 the hatches were closed, and at 8:02 a.m. EDT on July 19 the spacecraft separated. The Soyuz spacecraft landed on July 21, and the Apollo landed two days later; Apollo had a mishap during reentry and toxic fumes vented into the spacecraft causing eye and lung irritation.

While a success, the cooperative program was criticized as a costly space stunt. It could be compared to the cross-country flights and air races of the first part of century in establishing the importance of aeronautics. But it also demonstrated the viability of international cooperation in space operations. It also laid the groundwork for future cooperation between the US and USSR.

Cooperative efforts with the Soviets between 1975 and the end of the Cold War were less dramatic. They cooperated in an exchange of scientific data from deep space probes and other robotic missions. This was informal until ensconced in the April 1987 Shultz-Schevardnadze agreement to exchange data from planetary missions and biomedical experiments. At a May-June 1988 US/USSR summit these areas of cooperation expanded somewhat. It led to cooperation in several joint conferences and constant sharing of scientific information followed thereafter. It included unofficial visits and meetings at international conferences and at aerospace fairs. It also led to the establishment of satellite communications links on a cooperative basis during the December 1988 Armenian earthquake to assist relief effort. In commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America in 1992, additionally, these nations cooperated in the International Space Year.

Cooperation between the US and USSR in space was constant throughout the Cold War era, but often it was informal, and it enjoyed varying degrees of support from national leaders on both sides. The most significant cooperation came as a result of détente policies of early 1970s and led to highly successful Apollo-Soyuz Test Program. With the conclusion of the Cold War a new era of cooperative ventures are underway in space. What might the future hold?

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