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

Chapter 4

Mission to Moscow


[97] Between the spring of 1969 and the fall of 1970, the Paine-Keldysh correspondence had set the stage for serious discussions on developing compatible equipment and flight procedures. Tom Paine thought that cooperation in space was an important and timely idea and pushed for talks in furtherance of that goal - and he got them. Paine's success with the Soviet officials was vastly different from the experiences that had spanned the preceding twelve years. In this instance, the spirit of the past was definitely not the prologue.

Knowledge of the letters between the NASA Administrator and the Soviet Academician had been shared by a limited number of NASA people. As long as the communications were general and exploratory, action was concentrated in the offices of the Administrator and his Assistant for International Affairs. On 10 July 1970, however, President Nixon publicly confirmed his interest in pursuing discussions of space cooperation, stating that negotiations should be conducted at the technical agency level.1 Thus, when talks with the Soviets appeared likely, NASA Headquarters geared up in preparation. Philip E. Culbertson's Advanced Manned Missions Planning Group in the Office of Manned Space Flight (OMSF) was one of the first to be drawn into the widening discussions, having been assigned to consider the development of compatible rendezvous and docking systems.

In mid-August, OMSF began to "work the problem,"* an exercise in defining the technical considerations that would be involved in any American-Soviet negotiations. Dale D. Myers, Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight, sent a note on 19 August to Culbertson, who in turn assigned Eldon W. Hall and James Leroy Roberts of the Advanced Developments Office the primary responsibility for coordinating this effort among Headquarters and Center offices.2

[98] After a 12-day "quick look," Roberts submitted a draft report entitled "International Cooperation in Space," which presented his initial thoughts on developing joint systems. Roberts felt that the interest expressed "by the Soviets for discussion leading to the possibility of a common docking mechanism at space stations" came at an appropriate time since NASA was getting into detailed hardware discussions relating to the Space Shuttle (a reusable spacecraft) and Space Station concepts.** While Roberts and others believed that the Soviets might greatly benefit from an "open discussion of our system," they argued that "regardless of the Soviet intentions for the proposed discussions they should be pursued in depth."3

The Advanced Developments staff explored two possible types of missions employing compatible docking equipment - a rescue mission using either an Apollo or a Soyuz spacecraft to assist a disabled vehicle of the opposite type, or a mission to test out rendezvous and docking procedures. For several reasons, rescue possibilities appeared to be limited to an Apollo retrieving the crew of a crippled Soyuz. It would have been very difficult for the Soviets to accommodate all three Americans aboard their spacecraft unless they attempted an unmanned rendezvous with Apollo, and Soyuz was essentially an earth orbital craft, while Apollo was designed for lunar missions. Also, the opportunities during which Soyuz could provide assistance were limited since the two spacecraft normally flew in different orbital paths.*** Roberts concluded that "while a mission of this type is not impossible it is highly improbable."

"With Apollo orbital and maneuvering capabilities we could provide assistance" to Soyuz, assuming an extravehicular transfer. Roberts went on to say that for NASA to seriously consider an actual rescue backup to a Soyuz mission, the Soviets would have to make their flight schedules and launch parameters available well in advance so the American agency could divert the necessary Apollo spacecraft and launch facilities in time for the Soviet missions. Roberts pointed out that such an equipment set-aside could also be used for an Apollo rescue, "thus negating consideration of a Soyuz mission as a back up for Apollo."4 Space rescue was a far more complex and costly enterprise than it first appeared. Once the two countries shifted from [99] one-mission spacecraft to reusable craft such as the Space Shuttle, space rescue would become a more feasible and realistic topic for discussion.

While Roberts could see little justification for developing a compatible docking capability simply to provide a space rescue system, he did see some promise in applying a universal docking system to Skylab or Space Station. With the creation of standardized international hardware, it would be relatively easy for the Soviets to conduct joint missions with American space laboratories or vice versa. Roberts suggested further:

It is essential for any fruitful discussion of common hardware to have a clear understanding of the Soviet system of rendezvous and docking. There is a possibility that our hardware may have to be modified to assist the Soviet spacecraft in rendezvous operations. The system can be made to work but an exchange of information by representatives as proposed is a necessary step in that direction.

Looking to the immediate future and the possibility of Soviet participation in Skylab, Roberts felt that it was "not likely that arrangements can be made and hardware requirements incorporated in time to meet the Skylab A mission." But he was of the opinion that "there should be sufficient time . . . to match the systems for later flights of Skylab and Space Station if there is a genuine interest in doing so."5

Implicit in Roberts' comments were several important "ifs." NASA could develop the necessary rendezvous and docking systems if the Soviets were genuinely interested in cooperation and if such participation could be integrated into NASA's schedule for manned missions. OMSF was not likely to recommend proposals that would seriously delay programs or adversely affect its budget. Clearly, those responsible for planning would have preferred to incorporate joint projects into future missions, thus giving them the opportunity to plan more leisurely and still not lose the opportunity to cooperate. Perhaps the Americans' biggest "if" concerning cooperation lay in the uncertain future of manned space flight in the post-Skylab era.

Culbertson responded to the Roberts memo with some suggested changes. He thought it might be a good idea to break the problem into three major areas - rendezvous, docking, and transfer. "In each case a brief description of the difference in technique and hardware (U.S.S.R. vs U.S.A.) could be given as available from open literature." Then it would be possible, he wrote, to describe solutions to these differences "in very brief fashion." Culbertson also cautioned against making the topics under discussion too complex. "I wouldn't use this memo as a mechanism for explaining the further opportunities for international cooperation. Let's keep it on one topic." He believed that one subject "should say something about early (Apollo) implications and follow on possibilities." Culbertson [100] added one final caveat: "Let's also, in this memo, not question the U.S.S.R. motive. Leave that for other discussion."6

Following Culbertson's suggested format, Roberts sent memos to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC), and the Skylab, Space Station, and Shuttle Offices at Headquarters. From Raymond J. Cerrato at KSC, he sought information concerning the technical feasibility of a standby rescue vehicle that could support Soviet space missions. Roberts especially wanted information about the problems associated with making a Saturn IB or Saturn V launch vehicle available for such an operation; for example, the lead time required for launch once the Soviets advised NASA of their intentions to conduct a manned flight.7 Queries to MSC were much broader in scope. Jack C. Heberlig and Willard M. Taub were asked to provide answers to a number of questions in Culbertson's three categories. Specifically, they were requested to describe the known differences between American and Soviet hardware and techniques and to suggest possible steps toward eliminating those differences. The Office of Manned Space Flight that first week in September was doing its homework.8

One of the first responses to OMSF came from Skylab Program Director William C. Schneider. After taking "a fast look at the proposition of entertaining distinguished visitors in orbit," his Skylab office had concluded that "there doesn't seem to be anything that says it can't be done," but "there sure is a potful of things that would take a lot of joint planning. . . ." Schneider felt that an on-time launch, rendezvous, docking, and EVA transfer were all capabilities that had been proven within the Soviet and American programs. On the other hand, he did see areas in which considerable joint development would be necessary. We would need to interconnect the ground systems for tracking, mission control, and launch control, and develop a spacecraft-to-spacecraft voice communications link. After listing ten other topics that would have to be considered, Schneider said that his personnel would be glad to go into the subject of a joint mission at greater depth when needed.9

While there was limited enthusiasm for a joint flight in the Skylab Program Office, Paine on 4 September wrote a letter to Keldysh in which he proposed a Soyuz rendezvous with Skylab.10 NASA was still awaiting Keldysh's response to the Administrator's earlier letter of 31 July, in which he had suggested joint talks on compatible docking systems. Meanwhile, Leroy Roberts was coordinating the collection of technical data, which no one was certain would ever be used.

On 10 September, Roberts circulated a new draft memorandum to Hall, Culbertson, and Charles W. "Chuck" Mathews,**** which Roberts had prepared for Dale Myers' signature. [101] Concentrating on the desirability of the Soviets providing information on docking mechanisms that might be used in future space stations, Roberts reported, "Soviet docking arrangements as we know them have been reviewed . . . and fruitful discussions at this time will be very helpful in defining design requirements for hardware still to be built for the space station."11 Besides the work being conducted at MSC, North American Rockwell and McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Corporation were engaged in preliminary design studies of possible future docking mechanisms. Since these concepts were still in the drawing stage, it appeared to be an excellent time to obtain Soviet comments.

In addition to looking at future systems, Roberts appended to his memo the MSC materials comparing existing spacecraft. Will Taub,# one of the few NASA employees known to have followed closely the evolution of Soviet spacecraft, had prepared a series of sketches which compared the Soyuz and Apollo. These illustrations and MSC-prepared briefing charts permitted Headquarters personnel to develop a better understanding of the differences that existed between the American and Soviet approaches to space flight. These materials indicated that Soyuz was capable of either automatic or manual rendezvous and docking using radar and attitude control system responses from the target vehicle. The Soviet spacecraft could be flown unmanned or with crews of one, two, or three. Normal crew transfer from one Soyuz to another was an extravehicular maneuver, as demonstrated by the January 1969 flight of Soyuz 4 and 5.12 Direct (internal) transfer would require modification of the docking end of the orbital module.

By comparison, Apollo rendezvous and docking maneuvers were conducted manually, not requiring target participation. While the Apollo command module usually was operated with a crew of three, that number could be reduced or the cabin structurally modified to accommodate five astronauts. Transfer between the command module and the lunar module was made through a passageway between the two craft, the probe and drogue assembly having been removed after docking. Although extravehicular transfer was possible, it had not been a feature of Apollo missions. Another significant difference between Soyuz and Apollo was the cabin pressures. The Soviets continued to use a pressure equivalent to one earth atmosphere, while the Americans still relied on their pure oxygen environment at a much lower pressure. In the opinion of MSC specialists, however,...



Click here for larger image

Four sketches by W. M. Taub outlining Soviet and American spacecraft characteristics and possible joint missions with existing spacecraft. Prepared in 1969 for G. M. Low.


....none of the differences between the spacecraft posed a significant barrier to a joint mission.13

Chuck Mathews passed Roberts' material along to Dale Myers on 15 September. Since there still had been no response from Keldysh, Mathews commented, "I hear that this item has cooled a bit but I think it is still good to send this . . . along."14 Myers signed the memo on the 17th and sent it to the Administrator's office.15 OMSF and the Centers had investigated three possible types of cooperative missions - Apollo-Soyuz, Soyuz-Skylab, or future American-future Soviet spacecraft. Now the question remained as to the value of the exercise. When would the Soviets respond? What would they propose?

Acting Administrator George Low received a letter from Academician Keldysh on 23 September that brought an end to the suspense. Keldysh...



Click here for larger image

Artist's conception of Soyuz 4 and 5 extravehicular transfer as prepared in 1969 by W. M. Taub at the Manned Spacecraft Center.


....suggested that either October or late November would be a suitable time for the first talks, and he proposed that they be held in Moscow.16 Since President Nixon had given NASA the go-ahead to develop discussion with the Soviet Union, Low responded to Keldysh on the 25th, accepting the invitation and Suggesting a meeting a month later.17

During the next several weeks, OMSF concentrated on preparing an agenda for the upcoming talks. On 23 September, Mathews, Hall, and Roberts met with Oscar E. Anderson, Jr., of the International Affairs Office to discuss the agenda and delegation for the Moscow trip. As the plans for the meeting went through several drafts, Low and Myers met to decide upon a suitable chief for the American group.18 Since Low felt it was premature for the head of NASA to go to the Soviet Union, he selected Robert Gilruth, Director of MSC, because of his technical background and common-sense approach to complex negotiations.19

Low and Myers asked Gilruth to select the necessary technical specialists to complete the delegation. From MSC, Gilruth chose Caldwell Johnson and Glynn Lunney. Gilruth took only two men from Houston, because he felt that a small delegation would have a better chance for success. Since he wanted men with a breadth of knowledge, Johnson and Lunney were the obvious choices. Johnson, "a very, very talented [104] mechanical designer," could discuss the mechanical and electrical questions associated with developing a compatible docking system. Lunney, "an expert flight controller," had the necessary background in orbital mechanics and mathematics to discuss the mission planning aspects of a joint flight. In an effort to include the Marshall Space Flight Center in the talks, Gilruth called Director Eberhard Rees at Huntsville, Alabama, and asked him to nominate one person who could talk about Skylab. Rees recommended George B. Hardy, Chief of Program Engineering and Integration for Skylab, who by virtue of his position had a broad understanding of the program. Arnold Frutkin, Assistant Administrator for International Affairs, represented Headquarters. William Krimer, an interpreter from the State Department, completed the six-man delegation.20

The news that they were going to Moscow came as a surprise to Johnson, Lunney, and Hardy. Lunney was presenting a speech on 7 October to the 1970 National Airport Conference in Oklahoma when he got the call telling him that he was going to the Soviet Union. "For me it was out of the clear blue sky. I did not know anything about [the proposed talks] until that time." These three specialists met with Gilruth on the 9th to discuss the nature of their presentations to the Soviets. They would seek to provide their counterpart specialists with enough information to give them a common basis for further discussions, but not so much as to overwhelm the Soviets or to encourage comments at home that they were giving away too much.21 In Washington, Frutkin's staff was preparing a briefing to inform the press about the mission to Moscow.

The head of the International Office met the press at NASA Headquarters in mid-October and summarized the background to the talks. He explained that the emphasis on compatible docking systems just happened to be the specific American proposal to which the Soviets had responded affirmatively.22

It is simply that the Soviets have chosen out of this long list of initiatives from the U.S. side this one case to explore in some depth at this time. It could have been something else. This one seems to be more meaningful to them.

So just as I say we regard it as important, presumably also they regard it as important.

Frutkin took care to point out the very preliminary nature of the talks and to make certain that his questioners did not make too much of the space rescue capabilities inherent in the development of compatible docking systems. But reporters were especially interested in that aspect of the story because of announcements at the 21st IAF Congress in Konstanz, Germany, that the United States and Soviet Union had agreed to sponsor a space-rescue symposium.23 [105] Frutkin cautioned that the IAF proposal was purely coincidental:

When you see a release out of Konstanz that says the Soviet Union and the United States have agreed to a symposium of that sort, this is simply a shorthand way of saying that some individuals from the United States who are interested in space rescue on a professional basis are going to meet with some individuals from the Soviet Union who are interested in the same subject, and talk about this matter, just as they talk about a lot of other things. But there is no correspondence between their private professional discussions and our governmental official discussions, there is no relationship whatever.24

Despite Frutkin's statements about the nature of the discussions, the reporters still pressed him for a prediction on the earliest date that a joint mission might occur. The NASA representative responded that it was just too early to make such statements, but that Skylab was likely to be the first occasion. "We don't know how long - we don't know what the pace of our discussions is going to be." Reflecting on his experiences in negotiating with the Soviets, Frutkin said that such talks tended to progress slowly. He conceded that the question of timing was "very difficult to answer. . . ."25 While the reporters went off to file their speculations about the future, Frutkin and his colleagues conducted a dress rehearsal of their presentations.26

Gilruth, Lunney, Johnson, and Hardy flew to Washington for the "dry-run" on 16 October. Johnson recalled that the Headquarters staff, especially George Low, seemed to be interested in the type of presentation that each man planned to make. Low appeared to be particularly curious about the extent to which each man could vary his approach and think on his feet. Since so little was known about what the Soviets wanted to discuss, it was very likely that each man would have to sense out his audience as he spoke. The key to success might lie with a flexibility of mind and ability to react quickly to whatever direction the discussions might take. During the two-hour meeting, the five men were also briefed by representatives from the State Department, the Department of Defense, and the intelligence service.27


* Working the problem, a commonly used phrase in NASA, has descriptive significance beyond the convenience of jargon; it means the analysis of systems and the manner in which they impinge or "interface" with one another. By laying out all possible factors on paper, the NASA managers and engineers can begin to see more clearly the nature of a given task. "Working the problem" is shorthand for the NASA approach to understanding technological relationships.

** Space Shuttle and Space Station were advanced programs in 1970. By the time of ASTP, Shuttle had advanced into the mockup stage. Space Station was terminated in 1972 because of cuts in NASA's budget.

*** The problems of the Apollo 13 flight in April 1970 were still fresh in the minds of NASA planners. At 56 hours into the mission, a service module oxygen tank had burst, forcing the cancellation of the lunar landing and emergency planning for the return trip. The spacecraft had to continue on, swing around the moon, and travel back to earth. A rescue capability limited to an earth orbit would have been of little assistance in this kind of emergency. Later, in the Skylab era, Soyuz might be capable of rendering aid in the event of trouble.

**** Mathews was Deputy Associate Administrator of OMSF and acting Space Station Task Force Director.

# While many persons within NASA had followed the Soviet space program over the years, they had not concentrated sufficiently on technical details to develop an in-depth knowledge of the hardware. Taub had made an avocation of this subject and became especially useful in this early period.


1. Donald R. Morris to George M. Low, memo, 21 Sept. 1970.

2. Dale D. Myers to Philip E. Culbertson, note, 19 Aug. 1970.

3. Leroy Roberts to Eldon W. Hall, memo, "US/USSR Space Cooperation," 31 Aug. 1970; and Roberts, "International Cooperation in Space," 31 Aug. 1970.

4. Roberts to Hall, memo, 31 Aug. 1970.

5. Ibid.

6. Culbertson to Hall, note, Aug. 1970.

7. Roberts to R. Cerrato, memo, "Cooperative Space Activity," 3 Sept. 1970; and Roberts to Douglas R. Lord, William D. Green, Jr., and Richard J. Allen, "Cooperative Space Activity," 4 Sept. 1970.

8. Roberts to Jack C. Heberlig and Willard M. Taub, memo, "Cooperative Space Activities," 3 Sept. 1970. Background correspondence between Paine and Keldysh had been transmitted to Heberlig by Roberts on 26 Aug. 1970.

9. William C. Schneider to Myers, memo, "International Cooperation in the Skylab Program," 4 Sept. 1970.

10. Thomas O. Paine to Mstislav Vsevolodovich Keldysh, 4 Sept.1970; and Paine to Keldysh, 31 July 1970.

11. Myers to Paine, memo, draft (prepared by Roberts), "US/USSR Space Cooperation," 10 Sept. 1970; and Lord to Roberts, memo, "Feasibility of Compatible US and USSR Docking Systems," 14 Sept. 1970.

12. "Station No. 1," Newsweek, 27 Jan. 1969, pp. 93-94. This article was passed around within OMSF, because it described the differences between Soviet and American spacecraft.

13. Myers to Paine, memo, draft, 10 Sept. 1970, with enclosures.

14. Charles W. Mathews to Myers, note, 15 Sept. 1970.

15. Myers to Low, memo, "US/USSR Space Cooperation," 17 Sept. 1970.

16. Keldysh to Paine, 11 Sept. 1970; Keldysh to Philip Handler, 10 Sept. 1970; and Lord to Low, memo, 21 Sept. 1970.

17. Low to Keldysh, 25 Sept. 1970.

18. Roberts, note for record [handwritten chronology of events, n.d.] ; Mathews to Arnold W. Frutkin, memo, "Suggested Agenda Items," 24 Sept. 1970; and interview, Low-Edward C. Ezell, 30 Apr. 1975.

19. Myers to Frutkin, memo, "OMSF Participation in International Meeting," 5 Oct. 1970; and Mathews to Hall, note, 5 Oct. 1970.

20. Interview, Robert R. Gilruth-Ezell, 25 Mar. 1975; and Mathews to Frutkin, memo, "US/USSR Space Cooperation," 9 Oct. 1970.

21. Interview, Glynn S. Lunney-Ezell, 23 July 1974; interview, Caldwell C. Johnson-Ezell, 27 Mar. 1975; and interview (via telephone), George B. Hardy-Ezell, 4 Apr. 1975.

22. NASA News Release, HQ [unnumbered] , "Background Press Briefings; U.S. and USSR Cooperation in Space," 13 Oct. 1970, p. 5; and NASA News Release, HQ, 70-173, "U.S.-Soviet Meeting," 12 Oct. 1970.

23. Walter Sullivan, "U.S.-Soviet Space Docking Is Said To Be under Study," New York Times, 8 Oct. 1970; "Russians to Join Talks on Space Rescue Plan," Washington Evening Star, 8 Oct. 1970; and Howard Benedict, "Joint Space Rescue Symposium Slated," Denver Post, 8 Oct. 1970. Space rescue was a subject of considerable interest in the late 1960s, as exemplified by R. Cargill Hall in "Rescue and Return of Astronauts on Earth and in Outer Space," American Journal of International Law 63 (Apr. 1969): 197-210. Hall points out the need for hardware compatibility (p. 208).

24. NASA News Release, "Background Press Briefings; U.S. and USSR Cooperation in Space," 13 Oct. 1970, p. 6.

25. Ibid., pp. 8-9.

26. For the press comment, see Albert Sehlstedt, Jr., "U.S., Soviet to Meet on Space," Baltimore Sun, 13 Oct. 1970; John Noble Wilford, "5 NASA Officials to Visit Moscow," New York Times, 13 Oct. 1970; "Space Linkup Far in Future," Washington Post, 14 Oct. 1970; "NASA to Discuss Docking with Russians," Washington Evening Star, 14 Oct. 1970; "Co-operation in Space," Houston Post, 14 Oct. 1970; and D. J. R. Bruckner, "Space Efforts Could Take Giant Leap through International Cooperation," Los Angeles Times, 16 Oct. 1970.

27. Interview, Gilruth-Ezell, 25 Mar. 1975; and interview, Johnson-Ezell, 27 Mar. 1975.