Our SpaceFlight Heritage: ASTP and the extended hand
All journeys begin with a single step. In terms of the United States’ international efforts in space, that first step actually started with two launches conducted this week in spaceflight history. The first part of the mission lifted off atop the venerable Russian Soyuz-U booster from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The second part of the crew roared to orbit from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39B via their Saturn 1B SA-210 rocket. Both were sent aloft on July 15, 1975. What would follow would redefine how human spaceflight would be carried out for the next four decades.
What was called the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project or “ASTP” began during a period of détente between the United States and what was, at the time, the Soviet Union.
To accomplish the feat of having two very different spacecraft – each produced by disparate design philosophies – meet and dock with one another on orbit was not easy. To help with this task, the U.S. and U.S.S.R developed a docking module that was constructed in the U.S. for NASA.
The docking module, measuring some 5 feet (1.5 meters) in diameter, provided an extra-added feature – an airlock module. This was necessary as both the Apollo and Soyuz spacecraft (Russia has been using versions of Soyuz since 1967) had different air pressures within their vehicles (according to NASA, the Apollo Command Module had 100 percent oxygen at 260 millimeters of mercury; the Soyuz with a mixed oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere at 520 mm HG–lowered from its usual 760 mm Hg for this mission).
Both of the crews visited the others’ respective space centers, familiarizing with the systems that the other team of space flyers would use. First the Soviet cosmonauts, Valery N. Kubasov (Flight Engineer) and Alexey A. Leonov (Commander), stopped by NASA’s Johnson Space Center in July of 1973.
NASA astronauts Vance Brand (Command Module Pilot), Deke Slayton (Docking Module Pilot), and Thomas P. Stafford (Commander) then traveled to Moscow in November of that same year. This crew exchange was not the last time that the two bands of space flyers would visit the respective team’s countries, however.
In April of the following year (1974), the Russian flight crews journeyed once again to JSC, whereas the NASA astronauts flew to Moscow in June of 1974. There would be several more trips to and from Russia and JSC with the most notable being the late April 1975 trip that the NASA trio took to the Soviet Union. During their stay, they visited the Russian launch facilities at Tyuratam on April 28, 1975 – becoming the first Americans to see the launch site.
The ASTP crew and flight controllers carried out three simulation sessions in the middle of May of 1975, just two months prior to their flight. These training sessions reviewed the communications links between the U.S. and U.S.S.R flight centers.
A number of other simulations were conducted, demonstrating that the two crews would be able to meet up in space successfully. Perhaps the most significant of these was the December 1974 flight of a modified version of Soyuz 16, which validated the version of Soyuz that would carry out the historic flight.
The two crews learned the others’ language so as to increase the chances of success during the mission.
The crew of Soyuz 19, with the Soviet ASTP portion of the crew, lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome at 5:20 p.m. local time (8:20 a.m. EDT) on July 15, 1975. The spacecraft entered orbit with a 221.9 km apogee, 186.3 km perigee, 88.5 min period, and an orbital inclination of 51.8 degrees.
These were still the days of the Cold War, and Foreign reporters were not allowed to watch the launch in person. However, the flight of Soyuz 19 did mark one critical change in terms of prior flights – it was the first Soviet launch to be televised live.
The U.S. President at that time, Gerald Ford, watched the launch on TV from the State Department’s auditorium along with the Soviet Ambassador to the U.S at that time, Anatoly P. Dobrynin. Ambassador Dobrynin along with NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher then traveled to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida so as to watch the launch of the Saturn 1B – further highlighting the difference between the two ideologies.
The Soyuz 19 crew contacted NASA’s Mission Control located in Houston, activating the global Moscow and Houston Soyuz-Apollo communications system. This system was placed into operation during Soyuz’s fifth orbit.
At this point, Soyuz 19 was in the proper, circular orbit to meet up with the Apollo spacecraft with a new orbit of a 231.7 km apogee and 192.4 km perigee. Everything was set for the second act of the day.
At 3:50 p.m. EDT, July 15, 1975, about seven-and-a-half hours after the Soyuz launch, a Saturn IB rocket with the NASA portion of the ASTP crew lifted off from Launch Complex 39 at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Stafford led the two rookie astronauts into a 108 mile (173 km) apogee, 96 mile (154 km) perigee, 87.6 min period, and 51.8 inclination orbit above the Earth. Like the Moon-bound Apollo missions, the Command Module was turned to extract the docking module from the Saturn IB’s upper stage (in the case of the lunar missions, the Lunar Module was extracted).
After a final braking maneuver that was conducted at 8:51 a.m. EDT on July 17, Apollo was now in a 142 mile (229 km) circular orbit that mirrored that of Soyuz 19 – a fact highlighted by Brand.
“We’ve got Soyuz in the sextant.” Shortly thereafter, voice contact was made between the two spacecraft. “Hello. Soyuz, Apollo,” Stafford said in Russian. Kubasov replied in English, “Hello everybody. Hi to you, Tom and Deke. Hello there, Vance.”
The mission took the novel approach of having verbal communications done in the language of the listener. If, for example, one of the five crew was speaking to a Russian, then that person spoke Russian. Inversely, if someone was talking to a U.S. astronaut, the language would be English.
Almost 52 hours into the mission at 12:09 a.m. EDT on July 17, the two craft began docking with a hard dock reported some three minutes later.
“We have succeeded. Everything is excellent,” Stafford said.
This was replied to with: “Soyuz and Apollo are shaking hands now,” by the Soyuz 19 crew.
About three hours later, the hatch between the two spacecraft was opened, and the two commanders exchanged greetings, according to a NASA website recording of what followed as such:
“Glad to see you,” Stafford told Leonov in Russian. “Glad to see you. Very, very happy to see you,” Leonov responded in English. “This is Soyuz and the United States,” Slayton told TV viewers around the world. Both Soviet Communist Party General Secretary Leonid I. Brezhnev and President Ford congratulated the crews and expressed their confidence in the success of the mission. Stafford then presented Leonov with “five flags for your government and the people of the Soviet Union” with the wish that “our joint work in space serves for the benefit of all countries and peoples on the Earth.” Leonov presented the U.S. crew with Soviet flags and plaques. The men signed international certificates and exchanged other commemorative items. After nearly 4 hrs of joint activities, including a meal aboard the Soyuz, the Americans returned to the Apollo and the hatch was closed at 6:51 p.m. EDT.
The two crews toured one another’s spacecraft, conducted joint experiments, sampled food, exchanged gifts and mementos honoring the flight. A “tour” of the eastern U.S. was provided in Russian by Brand for Soviet viewers. There was an array of tours and events held to commemorate the important first steps made during the flight – before the hatches were closed. Undocking of the duo took place 8:02 a.m. EDT on July 19, 1975. Before the conclusion of the flight, a simple, prescient salutation took place.
Brand told both Leonov and Kubasoz, “… I’m sure that we’ve opened up a new era in history. Our next meeting will be on the ground.”
He could not have been more correct. In the intervening years, the Soviet Union became Russia, and the Cold War crumbled to the ground along with the Wall between East and West.
In the 1990s, Russia joined NASA’s effort to construct the largest space station ever attempted on orbit in what would become the International Space Station. Some 16 different nations currently contribute to the orbiting complex that, parts of which, have been on orbit for 17 years. Most crews of expeditions that venture to the orbital outpost are composed of Russian and U.S. members. Despite recent tensions between the two nations, this cooperation shows no sign of ending anytime soon. Today’s orbital accomplishments were all made possible by one of the most common of human interactions – the extended hand of friendship and its acceptance.
The crew on board the Apollo CM continued working on orbit, including some efforts in astronomy, where the trio discovered the existence of the first pulsar discovered outside the Milky Way. The NASA members of ASTP completed almost all of the 110 Earth-observation assignments and other experiments that they were assigned before they splashed down in the Pacific Ocean at 5:18 p.m. EDT on July 24, 1975.
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.