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



[ix] Apollo and Soyuz docked in space on 17 July 1975. The American and Soviet space teams met in orbit to test an international docking system and joint flight procedures. Sometimes lost in the extensive coverage given the event by the media was the fact that the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) was only a first step - an experiment. Implicit in the preparations for the first international rendezvous and docking was the idea that in the future manned space flight - both routine flights and rescue missions - could use the hardware concepts and mission procedures developed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Soviet Academy of Sciences. As a first step, ASTP was a success. The hardware was sound, and specialists from the two nations worked truly as a team. This history of ASTP is also a first step.

Apollo and Soyuz were still 16 months away from their rendezvous when we began this history in April 1974. But interest in an official record of the joint effort goes back to at least the summer of 1972, when ASTP emerged as a full-scale project after the Nixon-Kosygin summit agreement on cooperation in space. Throughout NASA, individuals who were preparing for the mission were aware that they were involved in a unique experience. Nearly all these people had originally come to the space agency during the Cold War to help ensure American preeminence in space. But with ASTP, they were asked to cooperate with their rival. Indeed, they were expected to build and test hardware that would permit a joint flight by mid-1975. Not everyone in NASA was sympathetic with this goal, but nearly all were intrigued by the challenge.

NASA employees have thrived on challenges. As members of a brand new agency, they had dared to overcome the risks involved in putting a man into orbit. Project Mercury had been the answer to that first bold challenge. They mastered the difficulties of space rendezvous in the second manned program, Gemini. And in the boldest of all challenges in the span of a single decade, they worked together to send men to the moon and return them safely. During the Skylab missions, they broke new barriers as man learned to live for extended periods of time in the zero-gravity environment of space. But flying a joint mission with the Soviet Union would be more than just a technological feat; it would require diplomacy, hardheaded perseverance, and good humor. [x] NASA accepted the new challenge, despite pessimistic voices inside and outside the agency.

There is an infectious spirit of optimism at NASA. Individuals do not go about saying they are optimists; they just act in ways that indicate they are. Contracting for a history of ASTP before the hardware was finished and before the mission was flown was one example of this positive frame of mind. The ASTP team at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston knew that Apollo and Soyuz would rendezvous and dock in space.

This history is an official history only because it was sponsored by NASA. The authors were invited through a contract to record their version of the events that led to, shaped, and emerged from the joint flight. When we first met with Glynn S. Lunney, the American Technical Director for ASTP, we asked, "Why do you want to have a history written?" Lunney responded that he had never asked himself precisely that question but that he did desire to see preserved the subtlety of human interaction that he had observed during the first four years of the project. Lunney went on to suggest that the technical aspects of ASTP were not nearly as interesting, or perhaps as significant, as the working relationships that had emerged among the technical specialists of the two nations. Written documents tend often to be dry and distilled, he thought. Lunney wanted a historian to see firsthand some of the personal interplay so that the flavor of the working sessions could be preserved along with the story that could be found in more conventional documents.

Our history is to a large extent based upon oral records. Sometimes dubbed "combat historians," or less favorably, "instant historians," we stalked the halls of the joint meetings in Houston with tape recorders in hand. Although never quite a part of the furniture, we were not an apparent disturbance to any of the negotiations we witnessed. And although we never traveled to the Soviet Union, those who did gave freely of their time, recollecting their experiences or answering our questions. Sometimes we cornered them in the halls between negotiating sessions, at other times by telephone. But whether it was over a quick cup of coffee while they waited for Xerox copies of a document or during a hamburger break, these men and women went out of their way to help, to explain, and to re-explain.

In addition to this firsthand observation of ASTP activities and interviews with participants, we had the typical "embarrassment of riches" that has faced all those who have written history for NASA.* Several early participants had already retired their "desk archives" to the JSC history office by the spring of 1974, when the authors began receiving all [xi] correspondence originating from the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office relating to ASTP as part of the daily distribution of such materials. In the future, when researchers look at the correspondence files that we have left behind at the Johnson Space Center and see "BE4/EZELL," they will know that the historians were reading everyone's mail. Much of the material we sifted through was extremely detailed. We could learn how many electrical connectors for the VHF/AM transceiver were being shipped to Moscow or what the latest revisions were to the "Joint Crew Activities Plan"; so we spent many days separating the nitty-gritty telexes and test data from the material that would permit us to tell the larger story.

The book that emerged from these efforts has both strengths and weaknesses. First, we have told essentially the NASA side of the story. We had free access to American materials and members of the NASA team. In addition, NASA has an ongoing history program, which makes the historian's task an easier one. Most of the information on earlier programs is readily at hand in published histories or works in progress. The Soviet space program by contrast is shrouded in mystery. The Soviets have not produced any comparable historical studies of their programs, and when we requested Soviet assistance with this history we were informed politely, but firmly, that they did not wish to discuss history. As a consequence, we had only limited opportunities to speak with members of the Soviet ASTP team. Where possible, to balance our presentation, we have cited Russian language sources, but our story remains one told from the American perspective.

Second, history written as events are unfolding can be neither entirely objective nor complete. But we have attempted to be fair in our judgments as we explained what the project meant to the participants through their personal recollections - recollections that otherwise might not have been preserved. We have tried to write an interesting narrative, sufficient in technical detail for the intelligent reader to grasp the mechanical elements of ASTP, but simple enough so that pages do not become bogged down by complex description. Those who worked on ASTP know that for every page of description in this history there are often hundreds of pages of technical documents, thousands of feet of computer tape, and seemingly endless hours of work. Some will be dismayed that their efforts were passed over or given only a line or two, but our goal has been to preserve some of the spirit of ASTP with the hope that some historians in the future will evaluate the project's significance more fully. Years will pass before we know if the partnership of so many engineers, spacemen, negotiators, and diplomats represents a stepping stone, plateau, or pinnacle in the history of international cooperation. Only time will determine the true perspective of their performance.

Third, there are topics that we chose not to discuss in detail because [xii] they will be recorded in other NASA publications. For example, we did not describe in depth the manufacturing history of the Apollo spacecraft, since that is covered in the fourth volume of The Apollo Spacecraft: A Chronology (NASA SP- 4009) and is the subject of the forthcoming history "Chariots for Apollo." We may be accused of slighting certain groups - the State Department, the Department of Defense, or Rockwell International, the spacecraft contractor. But we think that our treatment of these organizations in this history reflects adequately their participation in ASTP. More than any single manned space flight before, ASTP was a Johnson Space Center enterprise. Technical negotiations were conducted almost exclusively by personnel from Houston. Even NASA Headquarters typically assumed an advisory and supportive role, with the notable exception of Deputy Administrator George M. Low, who played a central part in planning and directing the program. When it came to the design of the docking system and the docking module, the JSC engineers took the lead and basically told the contractor in detail what they wanted. Again, this was a departure from earlier programs and does not reflect the manner in which the Space Shuttle was to be developed. We hope our book adequately reflects the unique nature of Apollo-Soyuz.


Because the flight of Apollo and Soyuz can be understood only in the international context from which it emerged, we have presented two introductory chapters that describe the early years of Cold War competition (chap. I) and the first efforts at cooperation (chap. II). The next chapter describes the evolution of manned spacecraft in the U.S. and U.S.S.R. (chap. III), while "Mission to Moscow" (chap. IV) outlines the experiences of the American technical specialists during their first visit to the U.S.S.R. in October 1970. In January 1971, discussion about cooperation in space flight turned from general talk of the "future" to specific proposals for a test mission using existing hardware (chap. V). During the ensuing 16 months, NASA and Soviet Academy engineers began to learn to work with one another, and by May 1972 the two sides were confident that they could design and build the necessary hardware by mid-1975 (chap. VI). Once given the official seal of approval at the Nixon-Kosygin summit in May 1972, work began in earnest toward the creation of a test project (chap. VII). As the hardware evolved, the United States and the Soviet Union monitored progress with reviews, planned public release of ASTP information (chap. VIII), and selected their crews, who began their technical and linguistic training for the flight (chap. IX). Final reviews of the project were held in the spring of 1975, while critics questioned the wisdom and safety of the joint mission (chap. X). All the efforts culminated in a nearly flawless flight in July 1975 (chap. XI), and the only unanswered question concerned what [xiii] the future would hold for cooperation in space between two nations that had dared to break down old rivalries.

As for accolades to those who helped us with this history, their names are best preserved in our essay on sources, which describes the materials we used, where they came from, and how they are arranged for future use.

On 24 July 1975 after Apollo had splashed down and the crew was aboard the U.S.S. New Orleans, we chanced to encounter Glynn Lunney as he left the Mission Operations Control Room. Suit coat over his shoulder, he smiled and said, "Now you have a story to tell." He was right.

Edward Clinton Ezell

Linda Neuman Ezell


July 1976

* Barton C. Hacker and James M. Grimwood, On the Shoulders of Titans: A History of Project Gemini, NASA SP-4203 (Washington, 1977), Preface.