The Partnership: A History of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project

Public Affairs Prepares for the Flight


While the Senator from Wisconsin pondered the safety of the joint mission, Soviet and American negotiators were completing Part II of the Public Information Plan. In the months that had passed since their October 1973 meeting in Moscow, the public affairs specialists had met many times to hammer out an agreement about flight-related activities. Central to all these discussions was the American insistence on live in-flight television coverage of ASTP. Negotiations of the television agreements were conducted at two levels - managerial and technical. While John Donnelly and Bob Shafer worked with I. P. Rumyantsev and V. S. Vereshchetin in an attempt to reach an accord on policy, several other Americans worked with the Soviet technical representative, Vladimir Aleksandrovich Denisenko. The U.S. television team was led by Jack King, Bennett W. James, and Gene Cernan. While King acted as policy coordinator, Ben James oversaw the requirements public affairs had for television and Gene Cernan managed the technical team, implementing the hardware and mission planning aspects of onboard television. The task was a large one, but it was not limited to in-house considerations. External to the space agency, for instance, NASA had to make provisions for the American networks to place a pool television production trailer on the recovery ship. Once Shafer and Donnelly discovered that the Soviets planned to cover their recovery live, arrangements had to be made to broadcast from the U.S.S. New Orleans. Then there was the question of the exchange and conversion of American and Soviet television signals during the mission. The agreement to exchange television was merely the first step. NASA and the Soviet Academy had to arrange to convert the signals so they would be compatible with each other's system at the Raistings television ground station operated by the Postal Department of the Federal Republic of Germany. And finally, the European Broadcast Union was wired into the circuit so that continent could also watch the joint mission.

To get ASTP television pictures into millions of homes across the globe was a complex task. Realizing this, Bob Shafer had begun the discussions of ASTP television planning in August 1972, with a proposed scenario for mission video coverage. Up to that point, dialogue on onboard television had related principally to the desire to include cameras in the command and docking modules. Once it had been agreed that live television would be broadcast from the spacecraft, Shafer composed a new scenario describing [304] how best to put it to use.35 After nearly a year of only limited Headquarters Public Affairs participation in the work on ASTP television, Donnelly and Shafer had advised George Low that the mission "would be flown in the dark" if he did not take some action to guarantee proper planning.36 On 31 August 1973, Low wrote a memo to Chet Lee, noting that "in preparing for Skylab, we had a great deal of last-minute confusion because the planning for television coverage had not been properly taken into account in the overall Skylab mission planning." Since Low believed it essential to have "highly professional TV coverage of significant ASTP events," he asked Lee to coordinate with Donnelly and Shafer, letting them know at an early date:

  1. The goals and objectives of ASTP TV.
  2. The planned hardware implementation to meet these goals.
  3. The planned programming implementation to meet these goals.
  4. Key milestones in meeting the objectives.
  5. A listing of responsible individuals who will make it happen.37

To smooth over possible intra-agency friction, Low had indicated in the same memo that "this [mission] has to be a joint effort with the Office of Public Affairs, with that office being responsible for programming requirements and for signing off on the hardware implementation."38

But friction did exist. On 14 September 1973, Shafer addressed a memo to Lee that read, "unequivocally and for the record, no one in Public Affairs drafted Dr. Low's memo to you, proposed its contents, suggested the language, or in any other way assisted in its preparation." Shafer believed it imperative that Public Affairs and Manned Space Flight proceed with their work without any misunderstandings over the agency's commitment to television as represented by the Low memorandum. "I would not think the management conviction it demonstrates should be at issue, particularly in connection with ASTP, but if that is the case perhaps you should discuss your concern directly with him."39 These early differences were caused in part by the failure to understand some of the technical problems associated with providing television from such a low earth orbit. Lunney had advised Lee in September that the Apollo Office had been planning to use the Skylab type of video recorders because time for broadcasting live pictures was so limited - 17.8 percent of each orbit. The argument over large-scale, live television coverage remained an academic debate until early October when the Office of Manned Space Flight (OMSF) gave its final approval for use of the ATS-F relay satellite to enhance all ASTP communications.40

On 2 October 1973, Lee briefed the House Manned Space Flight Subcommittee on the advantages of using the Applications Technology Satellite. He noted that ATS-F would permit direct communication with the ground for 48 minutes of each 88-minute orbit, an increase of 33 minutes per revolution over reliance only on ground station signal time. Dale Myers [305] reported to Administrator Fletcher on 2 November on the status of ATS-F:

It was determined that the ASTP vehicle would accommodate the additional weight and instrumentation and funds were identified for incorporating the necessary instrumentation. Concurrently, discussions were held with the ATS-F Program Office, which established an acceptable plan to both OMSF and the Office of Applications for the use of the satellite. During the period of negotiations with the ATS-F Program Office, a tentative approval by the ASTP Program Office was given to JSC for expenditure of about 10% of the necessary funds in order to proceed with the necessary engineering details. Shortly after receipt of the Office of Applications' support commitment letter of August 14, 1971, the ASTP Program Office approval was given to JSC to expend up to about $2.1M for the necessary modifications.41

Myers also told Fletcher that the Office of Tracking and Data Acquisition was working on both the hardware and the diplomatic aspects of placing a special ATS-F antenna at the Madrid Tracking Station.

Once all the television hardware elements had been identified, work began on preparing the equipment for the mission. A key to the success of this effort was Chet Lee's decision to ask Lunney to appoint a single individual to be responsible for television communications.42 Lunney's response "as a result of the very high priority placed on television during ASTP" was to establish "a special TV planning team to coordinate all of the necessary activities to assure the best television we can have." Gene Cernan was designated chairman of this planning team, and he was directed to begin "a regular series of meetings to cover all aspects including policies and requirements, the hardware implementation (ground and air) and the plans for training and inflight use." At the same time, Samuel Sanborn was given responsibility for the technical aspects of preparing the television hardware.43 In the 18 months between December 1973 and the Moscow FRR, a sizable team worked the technical issues associated with onboard television.44

By early 1974, the NASA television preparations were well on their way. The next task at hand was to obtain Soviet agreement on Part II of the information plan. Shafer told Donnelly:

The agreement is not only necessary, but urgently so, because neither their working group members nor ours can proceed much beyond the present status until the television requirements can be discussed as bilateral, rather than unilateral, considerations. Mission planning is moving ahead rather rapidly, and it will soon be virtually impossible to rework all of the technical issues involved in meeting those requirements.45

The first detailed discussions of Part II were held in Moscow at the end of March 1974. A second negotiating session spanned the April meeting in Houston.46 In March, Vereshchetin told the Americans that Part I had [306] obviously been based on a NASA proposal. The Soviets, he said, were glad that Donnelly, Shafer, and King had shown the way. But Part I sounded just like an American document translated into Russian. As a consequence, Vereshchetin wanted Part II to sound more Russian. Donnelly and Shafer agreed to this consideration as long as the language reflected policies that NASA could accept. The task of reworking Vereshchetin's proposed Part II fell to Jack King, who had a new draft completed by April. Negotiations at that meeting were slow and difficult, but before the Soviets departed from Houston, a basic agreement had been established. Donnelly indicated to Low that substantial progress had been made in the areas of real-time television exchange, news personnel accreditation, creation of mission press centers, press kits, and the like. After four months of feverish activity in Houston and Washington, the Americans went to Moscow in September 1974 to conclude agreement on Part II.47

Press reaction to the information accord was mixed. United Press International noted that "Russia has agreed to distribute live television coverage of the launch of two Soyuz cosmonauts and full radio communications during their joint orbital flight with an American Apollo." The UPI wire story indicated that this was the first time live television and in-flight radio communications of a Soviet space flight would be released to the West. John Donnelly, in an interview with the UPI correspondent, said the information agreement called for the video broadcasts to begin as Leonov and Kubasov boarded their spacecraft about 2 hours before launch, followed by a live picture of the lift-off. The latter would be not only a first for Western viewers but also a unique event for Soviet citizens, who heretofore had seen only video replays.48

Despite the public affairs accomplishment, Aviation Week, among others, was critical of the American space agency because it had not held out for media access to the Soviet launch site. Aviation Week's editors stated their feelings bluntly:

U.S. space negotiators have retreated another step in efforts to provide open access to the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project mission. With little protest from NASA officials, the Soviets have all but killed any prospects for U.S. or other Western press representatives to be present at Tyuratam during the Soyuz launch or at the Kalinin control center during the flight.49

Associated Press President and General Manager Wes Gallagher made a formal complaint to NASA about being excluded from the Soviet centers. Administrator Fletcher responded strongly to this criticism in a letter to Gallagher:

The public affairs agreement between NASA and the Soviet Academy of Sciences provides for the most complete, comprehensive release ever to the [307] U.S. news media of real-time information related to a Soviet space mission. It provides among other things for the exchange and release of live airborne and ground-based television; for the transmission to and release by our control center of air-to-ground commentary between the Soviet control center and its spacecraft; for a running description by a Soviet commentator of mission events as they occur; for the operation of a press center to which U.S. correspondents will be registered to cover the mission; and for the exchange between press centers of public affairs officers and interpreters to assist the press in its coverage of the activities as they take place. All of these are firsts for the Russians.50

Fletcher added that something must have become "garbled somewhere along the way since the ASTP public affairs agreement in no way limits, restricts or excludes the American press from Baikonur." The public information agreement related only to joint activities, while recognizing the right of each side to make decisions about independent activities, such as the Soyuz launch, in accordance with its own obligations and traditions.

NASA's Administrator did not want to take any action that might compromise the agency's policy of running an open program. "While the Soviets have held steadfast to their right to refuse to admit the U.S. press to Baikonur," Fletcher saw no reason why NASA should retaliate by excluding Soviet newsmen from the American launch site. "It would compromise our own open-program principles without changing theirs." Fletcher believed that upon reflection Gallagher would "agree that under no circumstances should we compromise our policy to parallel or conform more closely to another system."51

Part II of the Public Information Plan provided a framework for mission and post-mission press activities. But during the nine months between the signing of Part II and the launch, the agreement was fleshed out somewhat. This work included developing detailed television transmissions, as well as preparing for the onboard press conference and determining when and where symbolic activities (exchanging flags, signing flight records, etc.) would take place. By the time of the Moscow Flight Readiness Review, all but a few minor questions had been resolved. Final ratification of the updated version of Part II was signed on 10 July, five days before the launch.52 Public Affairs was ready for the mission.

35. Robert J. Shafer to John P. Donnelly, memo, "Apollo/Soyuz Test Mission Television," 27 June 1972; Shafer to Donnelly, memo, "ASTP," 29 Aug. 1972; and TWX, Bushuyev to Lunney, 28 Mar. 1974.

36. Interview, Donnelly and Shafer-Ezell, 26 and 28 Jan. 1976.

37. Low to Lee, memo, "ASTP Television," 31 Aug. 1973.

38. Ibid.

39. Shafer to Lee, memo, "ASTP Television," 14 Sept. 1973; and Lunney to Lee, memo, "ASTP Television," 18 Sept. 1973.

40. Lunney to Lee, memo, "ASTP Television," 18 Sept. 1973; Lee to Shafer, memo, "Television Coverage During the ASTP Mission," 25 Oct. 1973; and Shafer to Lee, memo, "ASTP Television Coverage," 2 Nov. 1973.

41. Dale D. Myers to Fletcher, memo, "Summary of ASTP Actions Taken Regarding Use of the ATS-F Satellite," 2 Nov. 1973, with enclosure, "Chronology of ATS-F Coordination."

42. Lee to Low, memo, "ASTP Television Coverage" [12 Nov. 1973].

43. Lunney, memo to distribution, "ASTP Television," 14 Dec. 1973.

44. "ASTP TV Planning Team, Minutes," 8 Jan. 1974, 12 Feb. 1974, 1 May 1974, 4 June 1974, 10 July 1974, 6 Aug. 1974, 22 Aug. 1974, 10 Oct. 1974, 20 Feb. 1975, and 26 Mar. 1975.

45. Shafer to Donnelly, memo, "ASTP Television," 30 Jan. 1974. Cernan had a similar evaluation of the situation. See Eugene A. Cernan to Lunney, memo, "ASTP TV Status," 1 Feb. 1974.

46. Donnelly to Fletcher and Low, memo, "Moscow Trip Report," 28 Mar. 1974; Lee to Donnelly, memo, "ASTP Status Report," 7 June 1974; and Shafer to Donnelly, memo, "ASTP Public Information Plan, Part II-May 1974 U.S. Revisions," 10 June 1974.

47. "ASTP Public Information Plan-Part II," ASTP 20 050 Part II, 13 Sept. 1974.

48. UPI wire release, 9 Oct. 1974. The precise language of the agreement stated, "Beginning with the Soyuz launch and ending with Apollo recovery, inflight (on-board) information from both spacecraft, voice communications between the two spacecraft, US and USSR ground communications to and from both spacecraft, and ground-based and on-board television will be exchanged in real time as they are received. This information will be released by each side to the news media in accordance with its own obligations and practices," "ASTP Public Information Plan-Part II," ASTP 20050 Part II, 13 Sept. 1974.

49. Aviation Week & Space Technology, 14 Oct. 1974, p. 11. Other comments included "Soviets Keep Soyuz Launch Site Off Limits, " Editor & Publisher, 30 Nov. 1974; "From Russia, with Live," Broadcasting, 14 Oct. 1974; "Soviet Refuses to Lift Its Ban on U.S. Newsmen at Launching," New York Times, 12 Oct. 1974; "Russians Insist on Bar on Press," New York Times, 24 Oct. 1974; "The Unwelcome Mat," Huntsville Times, 14 Oct. 1974 ;"Veil on Launch," Washington Star-News, 12 Oct. 1974; and "Russians To Provide Soyuz TV," Houston Post, 10 Oct. 1974.

50. Fletcher to Wes M. Gallagher, 22 Oct. 1974. This was also sent as a TWX.

51. Ibid.

52. "ASTP Minutes of Public Information Working Group Meeting, USSR Academy of Sciences and US National Aeronautics and Space Administration," 6-16 Apr. 1975; and "ASTP Public Information Plan-Part II," ASTP 20050 Part II, 10 July 1975.