— On , just six years after the beat the in the race to put a man on the Moon, the Cold War rivals achieved a historic first together when crew-carrying spacecraft built and launched separately on their respective territories successfully docked in Earth orbit.
The NASA Apollo capsule, launched two days earlier with astronauts Deke Slayton, Vance Brand and Tom Stafford aboard, linked up in space with the Soviet Soyuz capsule carrying cosmonauts Alexei Leonov and ValeriyKubasov. The Soyuz had launched just seven and a half hours earlier.
The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project marked the first major achievement in what would become a long-term, collaborative relationship between the two competitive nations. What is less well- known is that nearly 15 years earlier, then-U.S. President John F. Kennedy, who had yet to make his famous Apollo speech, actually proposed that the United States and go to the Moon together.
In May 1961 Kennedy announced to a joint session of Congress that the would send a man to the Moon before the Soviets. However, on at least two prior occasions, he also proposed a joint U.S.-Soviet Moon mission to then-Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, said Howard McCurdy, space historian and chair of of
Talks between the and the on collaborating on manned space missions “really had been building up for quite a few years” by the time of the Apollo-Soyuz docking, McCurdy said in a July 6 phone interview.
Kennedy made a public overture to Khrushchev at the United Nations in 1963 to consider an unspecified joint space mission, McCurdy said. But a month before his historic speech to Congress, Kennedy, meeting with Khrushchev in , invited the United States in going to the Moon, McCurdy said. Kennedy wanted to lessen the burden by sharing the cost of the effort, McCurdy said.
The Soviets declined Kennedy’s offer, thinking it a ruse, McCurdy said.
The United States proceeded alone, and six years after Kennedy’s assassination the Apollo 11 lunar module, carrying Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, landed on the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility July 20, 1969. Apollo 11 had launched four days earlier on a Saturn 5 rocket from Some 500 million people watched from around the world as Armstrong took the first steps on the lunar surface.
Richard Nixon, the president at the time who had welcomed Armstrong, Aldrin, and Michael Collins back after their Apollo 11 mission, expressed support for a joint U.S.-Soviet space mission in July 1970, the NASA History Web site said. Nixon wanted a joint mission to help bring about a detente, or warming of relations, between the two nations, McCurdy said.
Kennedy’s embrace of collaboration and Nixon’s support of detente with the Soviets stood in clear opposition to their public images as staunch anti-Communists, he said.
In May 1972, Nixon and Soviet Premier Alexey Kosygin signed an agreement in that led to the Apollo- Soyuz Test Project.
“The technical details were substantial,” McCurdy said. “The two capsules didn’t fit together.”
Both spacecraft had to be modified to make their docking and life support systems compatible, the NASA History Web site said.
But the technical accomplishments of the mission paled in comparison to its intangible benefits, McCurdy said. “I think it was very symbolic – symbolic of the two nations to cooperate on a number of levels,” he said.
Two days after launching from Cape Canaveral aboard a Saturn 5, the Apollo spacecraft caught up to the Soyuz. For three days the Apollo and Soyuz crews genially performed docking and transfer maneuvers.
The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project laid the groundwork for future collaboration between the two nations, McCurdy said. By forcing policymakers and engineers on both sides to communicate, the project pushed the rivals from competition to cooperation in space endeavors, he said. The project paved the way for a series of dockings of the space shuttle to the Russian Mir space station in the 1990s, and later ‘s entry as a full partner on the international space station, he said.