SP-4209 The Partnership: A History of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project

Working the Problem


When they returned to Houston, Gilruth, Lunney, Johnson, and Hardy sat down to discuss their accomplishments and the tasks ahead of them. The four men agreed that the discussion had been open and frank, and the problems they had anticipated had never materialized. Language differences had been their only barrier. Hardy felt that the Soviets "seemed very interested in achieving . . . and implementing some agreement to capabilities for compatible docking." He believed that they had done everything "that they knew how to do, to exchange information. . . . It was their suggestion . . . that we exchange additional information with more details." Hardy and the others, however, did not get a feeling for the Soviets' motives. Hardy continued, "I don't say this suspiciously, I just say it wondering. . . . it would seem to me that a rather significant policy decision on the part of NASA or maybe the Administration is in order." Now that the door was cracked, he saw the possibility of making an overture to engage in "a significant venture of some sort in the immediate future, or . . . to continue to discuss compatible docking in . . . the abstract."48

Caldwell Johnson was concerned about attempting to design systems in the abstract. He felt that considerable substance needed to be added to the discussions; [121] for example, designing systems adaptable to current spacecraft rather than designing hardware for some unknown future vehicles. Gilruth suggested that the initiative lay with him and his three companions. "We're the ones who are going to have to determine whether or not it's feasible. And whether or not we want to do it." Policy decisions would follow after their recommendations. Realizing the significance of their position, the men agreed that they would have to "wring out" thoroughly any proposals and not "go off half cocked."

Speaking to the question of a real versus an abstract project, Lunney argued that a decision in favor of a more concrete effort was implicit in the schedule proposed by Feoktistov. Lunney believed that the Soviet Deputy Director realized the implications of the schedule. "I think he knew that we would have to go home and decide what applicability we were interested in." Hardy added that he remembered hearing Keldysh say that he had invited George Low to visit Moscow for wider ranging talks on cooperation in space science. While the NASA delegation had not commented on it at the time, Hardy felt that should Low accept the invitation and should the timing of his visit coincide with the January exchange of technical requirements, "then he could possibly bounce this thing around a little bit . . . to see if we're in fact on the right track or way out in left field." Gilruth concurred, and said further that it might be appropriate for Low to present a gift to the Gagarin Museum at the same time, since the U.S. was conspicuous for its failure to remember the first man in space.49

Pursuing this thought on the need for concrete discussions, Caldwell Johnson decided to set down on paper some ideas for possible missions. In a 3 November document, "Initial Efforts toward the Development of Compatible Rendezvous and Docking Hardware and Software for USSR and US Spacecraft," he presented several considerations to be studied by the personnel of the Spacecraft Design Office. He strongly felt that the designers should concentrate on developing hardware for a spacecraft currently being flown by the two nations, and he explained his rationale:

Since the approved manned spaceflight programs of the US [are] comprised of Apollo and Skylab A, and possibly, exploitation of surplus Saturn and Apollo hardware; and, since the USSR manned space-flight program appears to be limited to earth-orbital missions utilizing a single or two docked Soyuz spacecraft, initial efforts toward the development of compatible rendezvous and docking hardware and software should emphasize those spacecraft and missions.

Johnson thought that this approach would not prevent consideration of rendezvous and docking between spacecraft still in the planning stages, but he felt that work on future systems should be limited to "development of [122] generalized requirements and concepts rather than engineering solutions for hypothetical problems."50

The American designer believed that the initial efforts toward development of compatible systems should begin by studying the technical possibilities of two broad classes of Soviet-American flights - scheduled and non-scheduled earth-orbital missions. The scheduled flights provided three possibilities: Soyuz could dock with Skylab to demonstrate the feasibility of such an operation, conduct an experiment in cooperation with the American crew, or occupy Skylab after the NASA crew had departed. Or Apollo could dock with Soyuz or act as a propulsion stage to place the Soviet craft in a "different orbital situation." Finally, Soyuz could dock with Apollo to prove its ability as the active rendezvous partner. The non-scheduled possibilities were essentially rescues performed by one nation for the other.51

To implement these studies, Johnson drew up a list of tasks to be performed at MSC. These spacecraft docking studies called for further work on the double ring and cone docking gear, a clearer definition of the new internal transfer docking gear developed by the Soviets, an initial investigation of mounting the new Soyuz probe or drogue in the Apollo CSM, and a "first-cut" study of the technical feasibility of docking existing Soviet and American spacecraft. While Clarke Covington of the Advanced Earth-Orbital section of the Spacecraft Design Office supervised this investigation, René Berglund of the Advanced Missions Office collected materials to send to the Soviets in November. At Headquarters, George Low and Arnold Frutkin briefed the White House (Henry Kissinger) and the State Department (U. Alexis Johnson). Low confirmed the acceptability of the "Summary of Results" by letter to Keldysh and prepared a response to Keldysh's letter inviting the Acting Administrator to Moscow.52

As he had indicated to his visitors, Keldysh wanted Low to visit the Soviet capital to discuss the broader possibilities of cooperation in the space sciences. Low responded in late November, the day following the transmittal of the docking documents from MSC, saying that he would be very happy to travel to the U.S.S.R. for discussions with Keldysh and the Soviet Academy of Sciences. He had been "influenced by the technical discussions on rendezvous and docking which began so auspiciously in Moscow last month . . . it may be that we should give priority to a few selected items which could be defined and treated in a very concrete fashion analogous to the rendezvous-and-docking case." Low then went on to list four areas in which substantive cooperation could be undertaken - updating the mid-1960 agreements on developing better weather forecasting; broader sharing of scientific data (including the exchange of lunar samples); pooling knowledge of space biology and medicine; and jointly exploring the oceans by satellite. [123] In a letter sent to Washington on 4 December, Keldysh agreed to Low's agenda proposals and the mid-January meeting date his counterpart had suggested.53

With the initial docking studies underway, Low's pending visit to the Soviet Academy of Sciences in January 1971 would give him an opportunity to discuss further the topic of manned space flight with the Soviets. Indeed, the in-house studies at the Manned Spacecraft Center took on new significance, as Clarke Covington oversaw the preparation of a document that would outline the various docking methods for Apollo and Soyuz. By the end of December, NASA was preparing to suggest to the Soviets that a real test mission might be not only feasible but more desirable than drawn-out discussions about abstract, hypothetical missions at some unspecified time in the future.


48. Gilruth et al., debriefing tape.

49. Ibid.; and Keldysh to Low, 19 Oct. 1970.

50. Johnson, "Initial Efforts toward the Development of Compatible Rendezvous and Docking Hardware and Software for USSR and US Spacecraft," 3 Nov. 1970. Johnson sent with this an undated note to Gilruth saying,"I wrote the attached only as a guide to feasibility studies that I propose to begin within Spacecraft Design Office."

51. Johnson, "Initial Efforts," 3 Nov. 1970.

52. Low to Henry A. Kissinger, 29 Oct. 1970; Low to U. Alexis Johnson, 30 Oct. 1970; Low to Keldysh, 5 Nov. 1970; Keldysh to Low, 2 Dec. 1970; TWX, Robert F. Freitag to Frank A. Bogart, "US-USSR Agreements and Studies," 10 Nov. 1970; René A. Berglund to Gilruth, memo, "Status of USSR/USA Docking System Activities," 9 Dec. 1970; and interview (via telephone), Shirley Malloy-Ezell, 22 May 1975.

53. Keldysh to Low, 19 Oct. 1970; Low to Keldysh, 24 Nov. 1970; Keldysh to Low, 4 Dec. 1970; and Low to Edward E. David, Jr., Science Adviser to the President, 2 Dec. 1970.