Today in Space History: Apollo-Soyuz Docking

Today in Space History: Apollo-Soyuz Docking

Thirty-five years ago today, an American Apollo capsule docked with a Soviet Soyuz capsule in Earth orbit. The 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) was a milestone in international cooperation in space — the union of the two Cold War superpowers, who used the space program as a symbol of their technological prowess.

Quite a few space enthusiasts paint Apollo-Soyuz as a case study of how the space program can unite disparate countries and contribute to world peace, but it really is the other way around. The era of detente between the United States and Soviet Union in the early 1970s allowed ASTP to happen. It is the fundamental relationship between countries that permits — or prevents — space cooperation as evidenced by the fate of U.S.-Soviet space cooperation after ASTP, which all but ended in 1979 when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.

The United States strongly objected to the Soviet invasion. (How times have changed!) One of the casualities was U.S. participation in the Moscow Olympic Games; another was U.S.-Soviet space cooperation. The United States turned a cold shoulder to the Soviets and the “space race” mentality returned full force. By 1984, NASA convinced President Ronald Reagan that the United States and its traditional international partners should build a space station to assure U.S leadership in space versus the Soviets. The Soviets named their third generation space station, launched in 1986, Mir — “Peace.” We named ours “Freedom.”

It is indeed ironic that Freedom evolved into a new union of U.S.-Russian space capabilities after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The name “Freedom” was dropped (for a number of reasons) and the “International Space Station” (ISS) emerged with Russia added as additional partner. Today, the United States is about to embark on an era of total reliance on Russia’s Soyuz to take its astronauts to and from ISS.

That’s an interesting tale still in progress. Meanwhile, several histories of U.S.-Soviet space cooperation — which predated ASTP, but at a fairly low level — are available, including an excellent book by Linda and Edward Ezell about ASTP published by NASA in 1978: The Partnership — a History of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, NASA SP-4209.

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