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

Khrushchev-Kennedy Letters: February-March 1962


John Glenn's flight in his Mercury spacecraft Friendship 7 was good for NASA, good for the United States, and excellent for international relations. Previously, the news media and public figures in the U.S.S.R. had spoken disparagingly of the American suborbital missions flown by Alan Shepard and Virgil I. Grissom. For example, at a session of the Twenty-second Party Congress, Cosmonaut Gherman Stepanovich Titov made a typical critique of the American space program. "We fly in orbit around the earth, and they jump up in ballistic curves. . . . We should like to wish them success in making orbital flights." Adding a touch of comparative politics, he commented further, "if they do want to emerge into orbital flights let them build a reliable launching pad, let them build socialism."3 After Friendship 7's 4-hour and 55-minute flight, the Soviet attitude changed. Although quick to point out that this achievement was simply a repeat, [38] and a briefer one at that, of Titov's day-long mission, the Soviet news media did give extensive coverage to the American flight.4 More significantly, newspapers that reported the details of the flight also carried the text of a congratulatory letter to Kennedy from Khrushchev.

Khrushchev congratulated the American people and their President for "the successful launching of a spaceship with a man on board." The Premier saw this to be one more step "toward mastering the cosmos"; this time an American had been "added to the family of astronauts." Khrushchev hoped that:

. . . the genius of man, penetrating the depth of the universe, will be able to find ways of lasting peace and insure the prosperity of all peoples on our planet Earth which, in the space age, though it does not seem so large, is still dear to all of its inhabitants.

If our countries pooled their efforts - scientific, technical, and material - to master the universe, this would be very beneficial for the advance of science and would be joyfully acclaimed by all peoples who would like to see scientific achievements benefit man and not be used for "cold war" purposes and the arms race.5

While the words of the Soviet leader could have been dismissed as a propaganda ploy, President Kennedy and his White House advisers decided to take the Soviet message at its face value and respond positively.

Kennedy's reply was direct and immediate. "I welcome your statement that our countries should cooperate in the exploration of space." Moreover, he told Khrushchev that he had "long held this same belief" and that he had championed such cooperation in his speeches to the American public. While supporting the supervisory role of the U.N. in the field of space cooperation,...

 President Kennedy and John Glenn

President Kennedy rides with John H. Glenn and General Leighton I. Davis following Glenn's orbital flight aboard Friendship 7.


[39] ...the President saw that the U.S. and the Soviet Union had a peculiar responsibility to lead the way toward international cooperation. As a consequence, Kennedy said that he had asked certain members of his administration to prepare "new and concrete proposals for immediate projects of common action" that he hoped would be discussed by representatives from the two countries at an early date "in a spirit of practical cooperation."6

In a news conference on 21 February, the President reported that he found Khrushchev's proposal "most encouraging" and "beneficial to the advance of science." The President also indicated, "It is increasingly clear that the impact of Colonel Glenn's magnificent achievement yesterday goes far beyond our own times and our own country," or, as Kennedy phrased it later in his press conference, now we "have more chips on the table than we did some time ago."7 When asked by reporters how far the U.S. would go in cooperating with the Soviet Union, Kennedy responded that it would be "premature" for him to say, but he added that "we all know from long experience that it's more difficult to transform these general expressions into specific agreements." Only time would tell if practical results would follow, and the President promised to withhold judgment until "we see whether the rain follows the warm wind in this case."8

At NASA, the Kennedy response to the Khrushchev suggestion for closer scientific and technological collaboration was a surprise.* The White House staff had prepared a reply to Khrushchev after an inquiry to Arnold Frutkin's NASA International Programs Office concerning the possibility of developing a list of "concrete" proposals.9 Following the dispatch of the Kennedy letter to Khrushchev, representatives from the White House and the State Department worked with a list of possible joint activities drawn up by the space agency for inclusion in a more detailed letter to the Soviet Premier. During the work on these proposals, neither NASA Deputy Administrator Hugh Dryden nor Frutkin had any direct contact with the President or his White House staff. NASA worked at a distance with the Department of State acting as an intermediary.** 10 They knew the President wanted to cooperate with the Soviets on space projects if possible. But what was possible? Was the President willing to sacrifice other aspects of NASA's programs to obtain [40] a closer cooperative relationship with the Soviets? In the absence of a clear mandate from the President, Frutkin's conservative approach toward cooperation prevailed. While not the dramatic stand desired by some Kennedy staff members, the NASA efforts were based upon previous experience with the Soviets in space negotiations.

The 7 March 1962 letter that Kennedy sent to the Soviet Union was based on a conscious strategy aimed at enhancing the possibility of obtaining a cooperative relationship.*** 11 Negotiations would be conducted at the technical level, not at the head of state level where politics might intrude. Such discussions would involve coordination of efforts in space research without calling for the integration of experiments of one nation into the spacecraft or ground equipment of the other. This parallel effort would be coupled with the reciprocal exchange of data.

Arnold Frutkin has summarized the key topics proposed in Kennedy's letter to Khrushchev:

  1. the establishment of an operational world weather satellite system through the coordinated launching by the US and the USSR of weather satellites in complementary orbits, the resulting data to be distributed globally through existing meteorological channels;
  2. the exchange of spacecraft tracking services, each side providing equipment suited to its own requirements to be erected and operated on the other's territory by the other's technicians;
  3. mapping of the earth's magnetic field in space, a matter "central to many scientific problems," by satellites which the countries would launch, one each, in complementary orbits;
  4. an invitation to the Soviet Union to join in programs already under way with other countries for the joint testing of intercontinental communications satellites (each country providing a ground terminal suitable for working with US communications satellites and participating in an international ground station coordinating committee).12

Beyond these four points, Kennedy briefly touched on the possibility of pooling and exchanging data gathered in space medicine and of exploring plans for future manned and automated space flight. This effort on the part of the White House staff to keep broader topics open for discussion was [41] indicative of a desire to let the Soviets know that dialogue could evolve into something larger. Kennedy therefore stressed that the points raised in his letter were not intended "to limit our mutual consideration of desirable cooperative activities."13

As the work on the Kennedy letter progressed, NASA, the State Department, and the President's Science Adviser decided to go ahead and appoint a technical negotiator in anticipation of a positive response from Khrushchev.**** Dryden, NASA's Deputy Administrator, was the unanimous choice, and President Kennedy approved the appointment on 19 March. The following day the President received a reply from the Soviets. In Dryden's words, "Now events moved very rapidly."14

Chairman Khrushchev's 20 March response to the Kennedy proposal contained a lengthy preamble restating a desire to preserve space for peaceful exploration and exploitation of those studies that would benefit all nations. Khrushchev's shopping list of proposals contained some that were nearly identical to those suggested by Kennedy, plus two new ones. Suggestions that were similar centered on cooperation in communications and weather satellites, data collection relating to the earth's magnetic field, exchange of space medicine information, and organization of a system for observing and tracking vehicles launched to the moon or the planets. The new topics dealt with the rescue of spacecraft and with space law.15

Khrushchev was agreeable to drafting an international pact providing "for aid in searching for and rescuing spaceships, satellites and capsules that have accidentally fallen." This agreement seemed particularly important "since it might involve saving the lives of cosmonauts. . . ." Rescue operations and returning space hardware pointed also to the further necessity of attending to the "important legal problems" of space that confronted the spacefaring nations.16

To begin the dialogue, Khrushchev told Kennedy that the Soviet representatives to the U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space were being instructed to meet with their American counterparts. Further, Khrushchev seemed to indicate a relaxation of one of the barriers that had been hindering concrete discussions: disarmament no longer was held to be the basic prerequisite to such talks, though it was a conditioning factor. It seemed obvious to the Soviet leader "that the scale of our . . . cooperation in the peaceful conquest of space . . . is to a certain extent related to the solution of the disarmament problem." Therefore, Khrushchev felt that "until an agreement on general and complete disarmament is achieved, both [42] our countries will . . . be limited in their abilities to cooperate in . . . space." If the question of disarmament could be satisfactorily resolved, "Considerably broader prospects for cooperation and uniting our scientific-technological achievements, up to and including joint construction of spacecraft for reaching other planets - the moon, Venus, Mars - will arise. . . ."17

In a news conference on 21 March, President Kennedy announced that he was gratified by the Khrushchev reply, and that steps would be taken to initiate an early discussion with the Soviets, with Dryden as his technical representative. Kennedy said that the U.S. would make "all possible efforts to carry forward the exploration and use of space in a spirit of cooperation for the benefit of all mankind."18 The rhetoric sounded promising, but the work remained. As Kennedy said, "an agreement to negotiate does not always mean a negotiated agreement."19


* Dryden and Frutkin indicated that the initiative for the Kennedy response of 21 Feb. came from the White House, although NASA received the message through the State Department. Dryden felt that Presidential Science Adviser Jerome Wiesner might have been the source of this particular response, but he was not certain.

** The NASA contacts in the State Department were George C. McGhee, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs; Philip J. Farley, Special Assistant to the Secretary of State for Atomic Energy and Outer Space; and Robert F. Packard, Farley's assistant.

*** There have been some charges that the Kennedy proposals represented nothing new. Former Kennedy White House science aide Eugene Skolnikoff also charged NASA with selecting "only those projects which it thought would be technically and politically desirable." Accordingly, NASA was interested only in the exchange of information and not "intimate cooperation that would have involved joint research and development programs." Arnold Frutkin would not disagree with the specifics, but he would take exception with the interpretation. He felt that NASA should deal with those projects that were possible, not with those that were desirable simply because they were idealistic and dramatic.

**** Administrator James E. Webb represented NASA in this discussion, with George McGhee of the State Department and Science Adviser Jerome B. Wiesner.

3. "Text of Gherman Titov's October 26 Speech," 22nd CPSU Congress, 15: 56.

4. "SShA-vtoraya strana, poslavshaya cheloveka v kosmos, polet Dzhona Glenna" [USAsecond country to send a man into space, pilot John Glenn], Izvestiya, 22 Feb. 1962.

5. Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev to John F. Kennedy, 21 Feb. 1962, as printed in U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, Documents on International Aspects of the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, 1954-1962, 88th Cong., 1st sess., 1963, p. 232.

6. Kennedy to Khrushchev, 21 Feb. 1962, as printed in Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, Documents on International Aspects of Space, p. 233.

7. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, John F. Kennedy, 1962 (Washington, 1963), pp. 151-152 and 157-158; and Theodore C. Sorenson, Kennedy (New York, 1965), p. 529.

8. Public Papers of John F. Kennedy, 1962, pp. 157-158.

9. Interview, Hugh L. Dryden-Arnold W. Frutkin, Walter D. Sohier, and Eugene M. Emme, 26 Mar. 1964, p. 20.

10. Ibid., pp. 20-21; and A. W. Frutkin comments on draft history, 12 Feb. 1975.

11. "Address by the Director of the Office of International Programs, National Aeronautics and Space Administration [Frutkin], on International Cooperation in the Exploration of Space, February 16, 1960," as printed in Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, Documents on International Aspects of Space, pp. 168-175. For an alternate and critical view, see Eugene B. Skolnikoff, Science, Technology and American Foreign Policy (Cambridge, Mass., 1967), pp. 32-36.

12. Frutkin, International Cooperation in Space, p. 93. For full text of the Kennedy letter, see Public Papers of John F. Kennedy, 1962, pp. 244-245; and Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, Documents on International Aspects of Space, pp. 242-244.

13. Public Papers of John F. Kennedy, 1962, pp. 244-245.

14. Philip J. Farley to George W. Ball, memo, "Designation of Technical Representatives for U.S.-Soviet Space Cooperation Talks," 9 Mar. 1962; Ball to Kennedy, memo, "Designation of Technical Representatives for U.S.-Soviet Space Cooperation Talks," 16 Mar. 1962; interview, Dryden-Frutkin, Sohier and Emme, 26 Mar. 1964, p. 22; Thomas J. Hamilton, "U.N. Space Panel Hears U.S. Urge Cooperation," New York Times, 20 Mar. 1962; and "Dryden Hard to Fool in Science or Politics," Washington Star, 22 Mar. 1962.

15. Khrushchev to Kennedy, 20 Mar. 1962, as printed in Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, Documents on International Aspects of Space, pp. 248-251.

16. Ibid., p. 250. For further comment, see R. Cargill Hall, "Rescue and Return of Astronauts on Earth and in Outer Space," American Journal of International Law 63 (Apr.1969): 197-210.

17. Khrushchev to Kennedy, 20 Mar. 1962, pp. 250-25].

18. Ibid., pp. 251-252.

19. Public Papers of John F. Kennedy, 1962, p. 264.