Antonio Pérez Carmona
The Apollo-Soyuz Mission
The Saturn IB rocket lifts off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 15, 1975, carrying Stafford, Brand and Slayton in an Apollo capsule.
Soyuz 19 stands on its launch pad, awaiting liftoff from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
The hands of Cosmonaut Valery Kubasov are seen as he adds his name to the Soviet side of the official joint mission certificate during rendezvous day.
Astronaut Thomas P. Stafford (in foreground) and Cosmonaut Alexey A. Leonov make their historic handshake in space on July 17, 1975.
Launch: July 15, 1975, at 8:20 a.m. EDT
Launch Site: Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan
Flight Crew: Alexey A. Leonov, Valery N. Kubasov
Landing: July 21, 1975
Launch: July 15, 1975, at 3:50 p.m. EDT
Launch Site: Launch Complex 39, Kennedy Space Center, Florida
Flight Crew: Thomas P. Stafford, Vance D. Brand, Donald K. Slayton
Landing: July 24, 1975
Docking Time: July 17, 1975, at 12:12 p.m. EDT
Undocking Time: July 19, 1975, at 11:26 a.m. EDT
Total Duration of Joint Activities: 19 hours, 55 minutes
Orbital Inclination: 51.8 degrees
The Apollo-Soyuz mission began at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Soyuz 19 launched July 15, 1975, at 8:20 a.m. EDT, carrying cosmonauts Alexey Leonov and Valery Kubasov. Hours later, Apollo followed, lifting off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at 3:50 p.m. On board were astronauts Thomas Stafford, Vance Brand and Donald Slayton.
Both the Soyuz and Apollo vehicles made orbital adjustments during the following two days, bringing both into a circular, 229-kilometer orbit. Hard-dock was achieved July 17 at 12:12 p.m. as the two craft soared above the Atlantic Ocean. A global audience watched on television as the historic event unfolded.
Hatches between the vehicles were opened at 3:17 p.m. and the two space crews warmly greeted each other, officially beginning joint activities. The astronauts and cosmonauts took congratulatory calls from Soviet Communist Party General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and U.S. President Gerald Ford, exchanged commemorative gifts and shared a meal before closing the hatch for the day.
The next day was a busy one for the combined crews. Brand joined Kubasov in the Soyuz, while Leonov joined Stafford and Slayton in the Apollo. After giving TV viewers a tour of each vehicle, the crew members conducted science experiments and had lunch. Later, Kubasov and Brand left the Soyuz to join Slayton in the Apollo, leaving room for Leonov and Stafford to spend time in the Soyuz.
By mid-afternoon, the final speeches and gift exchanges were complete, and it was time for the astronauts and cosmonauts to say goodbye. After the last handshake, the crews retreated to their spacecraft and the hatches between the two vehicles were closed.
The two spacecraft undocked July 19 at 8:02 a.m. As the Apollo capsule backed away, it blocked the sun from the Soyuz vehicle, creating the first human-made eclipse and enabling the cosmonauts to photograph the sun’s corona. The two spacecraft then docked once more, with final undocking at 11:26 a.m.
Soyuz 19 stayed in orbit an additional day to carry out life-science experiments. Its mission ended July 21 at 6:51 a.m. with a successful landing less than seven miles from its target near Baikonur Cosmodrome. Soyuz 19 marked the first Soviet mission with a televised launch and landing.
While Soyuz touched down, Apollo still was in orbit. The astronauts spent the extra time in space by performing space-science and Earth-observing experiments. Apollo splashed down in the Pacific Ocean west of Hawaii at 5:18 p.m. EDT on July 24. It was the last planned ocean landing for U.S. human spaceflight.
Apollo-Soyuz: An Orbital Partnership Begins
Most of us take it for granted today that American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts live and work together in Earth orbit. They’ve been doing it for years, first in the Shuttle-Mir program, and now on the International Space Station. This orbital cooperation has grown to include partners in the Canadian, European and Japanese space agencies, and will continue well into the next decade, as humanity learns about living off the home planet to prepare for longer journeys beyond Earth orbit.
Astronaut Donald K. “Deke” Slayton embraces cosmonaut Aleksey Leonov in the Soyuz spacecraft.
The Apollo-Soyuz crew, from left: American astronauts “Deke” Slayton, Tom Stafford, Vance Brand, Russian cosmonauts Aleksey Leonov, Valeriy Kubasov.
But before the two Cold War-rivals first met in orbit in 1975, such a partnership seemed unlikely. Since Sputnik bleeped into orbit in 1957, the superpowers were driven by the Space Race, with the U.S. and then-Soviet Union driven more by competition than cooperation. When President Kennedy called for a manned moon landing in 1961, he spoke of “battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny” and referred to the “head start obtained by the Soviets with their large rocket engines.”
But by the mid-70s things had changed. The U.S. had “won” the race to the Moon, with six Apollo landings between 1969 and 1972. Both nations had launched space stations, the Russian Salyut and American Skylab. With the Space Shuttle still a few years off and the diplomatic chill thawing, the time was right for a joint mission.
The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project would send NASA astronauts Tom Stafford, Deke Slayton and Vance Brand in an Apollo Command and Service Module to meet Russian cosmonauts Aleksey Leonov and Valeriy Kubasov in a Soyuz capsule. A jointly designed, U.S.-built docking module fulfilled the main technical goal of the mission, demonstrating that two dissimilar craft could dock in orbit. But the human side of the mission went far beyond that.
The training leading up to the mission exposed the two crews to each other’s nations, helping to break down cultural and language barriers. As Brand said in a 2000 interview, amid the Cold War tensions, “we thought they were pretty aggressive people and … they probably thought we were monsters. So we very quickly broke through that, because when you deal with people that are in the same line of work as you are, and you’re around them for a short time, why, you discover that, well, they’re human beings.”
“We were a little of a spark or a foot in the door that started better communications.”
– Astronaut Vance Brand In a 1997 interview, Stafford described how they got around the language problem. “Each crew would speak his own language, and the other would have to understand,” he said. It just wasn’t working, until Stafford and the Russian backup commander had the idea to speak in the other’s language. “So we started,” he said, “and boy, it worked slick as a whistle.”
On July 17, 1975, the five explorers and the two craft -launched two days before – approached each other for docking. As Stafford guided the Apollo forward, Soyuz commander Leonov quipped “Tom, please don’t forget about your engine.” Just after noon on the East Coast in the U.S., with a live TV audience watching, the two craft finally met. “Soyuz and Apollo are shaking hands now.”
A few hours later it was the crew members who were literally shaking hands, exchanging hugs and ceremonial gifts, including U.S., Soviet and United Nations flags, commemorative plaques, medallions, certificates and tree seeds.
The crews received a congratulatory message from Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev and a phone call from U.S. President Gerald Ford, who joked with astronaut Slayton about being the “world’s oldest space rookie.”
The 51-year old Slayton had been one of the “Original Seven” Mercury astronauts, but was grounded due to a heart condition. Finally cleared to fly on Apollo-Soyuz, Slayton reported, “it’s been a great experience. I don’t think there’s any way anybody can express how beautiful it is up here.”
Apollo Commander Stafford had another unique cultural exchange for the cosmonauts. He’d gotten country music star Conway Twitty to record “Privet Radost,” a Russian version of his hit “Hello, Darlin’.” About an hour before the two craft undocked, the song was played from orbit and heard all over the world. Mission Control quipped that it “sounded like it was from far Western Oklahoma, around Kiev.”
The Apollo crew returned to Earth on July 19, their Russian counterparts two days later. It would be two decades until the countries teamed up again with the Shuttle-Mir program, but the seed was planted. As Brand said, “I really believe that we were sort of an example … to the countries. We were a little of a spark or a foot in the door that started better communications.”