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

The Watchdogs Concur


Created in the wake of the Apollo 204 fire, the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel acted as an independent body reporting to the Administrator [271] of NASA on the flight readiness of every manned mission from the standpoint of safety.57 As such, the panel looked over the shoulders of NASA and contractor personnel while they prepared for flights to make certain that all possible safety precautions were taken. Since early in 1973, this body had been conducting reviews of all ASTP-related activities that might affect the safety of the mission.

The panel concluded that the Apollo spacecraft (CSM 111 and 119), the launch vehicle, and ground support equipment appeared to be ready for the mission. They noted that modifications necessitated by the joint mission had been completed and subjected to detailed safety assessments and hardware qualification tests. Panel members were of the opinion that appropriate attention had been given to the effects of equipment aging during storage, a matter of some concern for both the CSMs and the launch vehicle, SA-210.

Turning to the new hardware, the panel was equally satisfied. For the docking module, ASAP commented, the designers had applied safety margins significantly greater than those used in prior manned vehicles. The 15.8-millimeter aluminum plate from which the docking module was constructed possessed inherent strength considerably greater than that required by any loads likely to be encountered during the mission. In a similar fashion, the high pressure gas vessels used in the docking module environmental control system had been designed with a safety factor of four. The reliability of the docking module and its subsystems had been proven by mathematical analysis and qualification testing that provided "a basis for confidence in the flight systems meeting mission requirements."58

Of equal interest to the panel was the docking system, because it constituted the direct interface with Soyuz. In view of ASAP's concern, Charles D. Harrington, a member of the panel, observed the Moscow portion of the compatibility testing in mid-November 1974. Commenting on this experience, the panel reported:

This . . . provided further insight into the Soyuz hardware, joint working relations between technical and management personnel, and the joint testing program. The Panel examined the test program and its results to assure that the qualification testing was adequate and that no residual safety problems for the flight personnel could be identified. Of the many key system components, the docking system seals, locking latches, and alignment pins and sockets were of particular interest. Development tests and qualification tests have been conducted on these items to assure proper operation within the joint phases of the mission. All known problems have been resolved.59

Turning to the sensitive topic of Soyuz flight readiness, the panel indicated that its members had discussed at length with the Working Group chairmen the adequacy of Soviet management in the areas of design, testing, [272] fabrication, and check-out. The chairman said that they "had found no management situations that would compromise NASA's ability to provide for crew safety during the joint phase of the mission." Since the panel did not have firsthand data concerning Soyuz, they had to rely upon the judgment of those who had been working with the Soviets. Considering that the Soyuz design had a long test and flight history, the panel concluded that the spacecraft was suitable for the joint mission. They did not see any circumstances that might endanger the crews, noting that almost all of the Soyuz systems were designed to operate automatically or semi-automatically with a minimized role for the cosmonauts. These elements and the testing program for the new onboard systems gave the panel reasonable confidence in the Soviet spacecraft. After looking at all aspects of the mission, ASAP stated, "confidence in crew safety for the joint phases is essentially equal to that for prior manned earth orbital flights."60

Presentation of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel's findings was made in Washington on 5 February 1975. In addition to Administrator Fletcher and other senior officials of the space agency, staff members from the Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences and the House Committee on Science and Astronautics were present during their report. On the following day, four members of the panel, two staff members, and a consultant traveled to Houston to talk with the two Technical Directors about specific aspects of ASTP that still concerned them. Prior to meeting with the Soviets, panel members Howard K. Nason, Charles Harrington, Herbert E. Grier, and Lieutenant General Warren D. Johnston met with Glynn Lunney. Chairman Nason, president of the Monsanto Research Corporation, told Lunney that the panel would like to ask the Soviets some specific questions in an effort to clarify a few points. General Johnston, Director of the Defense Nuclear Agency, in particular had a specific query that he wanted Lunney to have translated into Russian so it could be presented to Bushuyev.61

Lunney, sensitive to the anxiety that the appearance of a hitherto unfamiliar group asking probing questions might cause among the Soviets, suggested that there might be a better approach. He volunteered to ask the Professor to give his views on each of the areas of concern, thereby obtaining the information without appearing like an inquisition. Lunney added that the ASAP members might want to "put the shoe on the other foot" when they worried about the reliability of Soyuz. He said that sometimes American problems had to be resolved in a manner that might appear to an outsider to be unorthodox and unacceptable. He cited as an example a "crew alert" light that had indicated a problem during a checkout of the ASTP spacecraft at the Cape. NASA's solution had been the reasonable one; [273] they had disconnected the warning light and isolated the wiring leading to it when it was determined that indeed nothing was wrong. This was an acceptable procedure that the ASAP members could understand, but would it be fully comprehended by observers from another country? He asked them to reflect on how they might react if they were a Soviet safety board and they had found that the Americans planned to fly a spacecraft with a cabin atmosphere of 100 percent oxygen when a possible short could cause a fire. Johnson and the others indicated that they understood. Since they really only wanted to reassure themselves on a few points, they would let Lunney ask the questions.

Upon his return to the joint meeting site, Lunney asked the Professor and Alex Tatistcheff, Lunney's interpreter, to join him in his temporary office to discuss the impending meeting with the Safety Advisory Panel. Tatistcheff, in an effort to allay any concern on the Professor's part, was careful to point out that although in Russian there was only one word for both safety and security (bezopasnost'), in English these were two different words. The panel was simply a committee of technical experts selected by NASA's Administrator to provide an independent evaluation of the safety precautions for all manned flights. It was not a body involved with any of the American intelligence or security organizations. Once this linguistic distinction was made clear, the Professor said that he was willing to speak with the panel members but that he would prefer not to be placed in the position where he might be required to present a lengthy defense of Soyuz. Lunney assured him that the Safety Panel would not expect him to engage in such an exercise, because there was adequate information available in the various ASTP documents. After the mission, Bushuyev quoted Lunney as having said, "You see, neither of us has any doubts about this, but members of the commission [ASAP] hear only my voice. For them, your opinion, your arguments will be very authoritative." Bushuyev added, "I agree."62 With the ground rules for the meeting established, Lunney brought the two groups together.

The early minutes of the gathering were very formal, and the Soviets were slightly defensive in their reactions. Lunney introduced the members of the Soviet delegation to the panel, and Nason introduced in turn his group and gave a brief explanation of the background and purpose of the panel. Responsible to the Administrator, they were just one more element of the overall agency effort to reduce accidents. In the case of manned flights, their goal was to be as certain as possible that every step had been taken to eliminate all flight hazards. In the case of ASTP, Nason pointed out that they were interested in the dangers posed by fire, toxic fumes, and an undocking of the spacecraft caused by a failure of the latches or inadvertent [274] detonation of the pyrotechnics. A related area of interest was the ability of the crews and flight directors to react quickly and decisively in the event of an in-flight emergency. Lunney suggested that Bushuyev might want to comment on these topics, since the Panel had thus far only heard his own version.

Bushuyev prefaced his remarks by saying that safety had been a central concern of both sides since the very earliest days of the joint sessions. Through a series of detailed documents, the Soviet and American technical specialists had certified that their respective spacecraft were free from the hazards outlined by Nason. As for the ability of the crews and the flight directors to make command decisions in the event of an emergency, the Professor reminded the panel members of the extensive crew training in both flight procedures and language. The intercontrol center simulations, interpreters at the flight consoles, and visiting technical specialists in the two control centers were all for the purpose of providing split-second decision making on the ground as well. Given the experience with the crew and ground control training sessions to date, the Soviet director was convinced that by the time of the flight, the crews and the flight directors would be able to cope with any unforeseen circumstances. He added that his confidence was enhanced by his knowledge that every effort had been made to eliminate all possible sources of trouble. Lunney concurred and suggested that having worked together throughout most of the preparations for the flight the crews and flight directors would "understand each other's thinking" in the unlikely event that an emergency should require an immediate, on-the-spot decision during the mission.

Having had a chance to talk with Bushuyev and to watch the manner in which the technical directors worked together, the ASAP members were convinced that a two-nation partnership had indeed been worked out that was capable of conducting the first international manned space flight. They also began to understand Lunney's respect for the Soviet team. What they might not have fully appreciated, however, was the manner in which Lunney had handled Soviet concerns over issues that reflected the safety of Apollo. Safety was a full time interest of both teams, and there had been times when the Soviets had expressed concern about the manner in which Apollo was to be flown during the joint phase of the mission. The shoe could be on the other fellow's foot.

57. NASA Management Instruction 1156.14A, "Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel," 18 June 1973. Members of the panel and staff were Howard K. Nason, Charles D. Harrington, Frank C. Di Luzio, Herbert E. Grier, Lee R. Scherer, Henry Reining, Ian M. Ross, Warren D. Johnson, Bruce T. Lundin, Gilbert L. Roth, V. Eileen Evans, William A. Arazek, and Carl R. Praktish.

58. Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, "Annual Report to the NASA Administrator, Part 1 - Apollo Soyuz Test Project, Section 1 - Observation and Conclusions," Feb. 1975; and Nason to Fletcher, 5 Feb. 1975.

59. Harrington, "Trip Report: Observation of Working Group No. 3 at Academy of Sciences, Moscow, USSR," 27 Nov. 1974.

60. Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, "Annual Report," Feb. 1975.

61. Reporting on this part of the ASAP meeting with the Soviets is based on notes taken by Ezell during the discussions, 6 Feb. 1975. See interview, Alex Tatistcheff-Ezell, 6 Feb. 1975.

62. Bushuyev, ed., Soyuz i Apollon, rasskazivayut sovetskie uchenie inzhineri i kosmonavti-ychastniki sovmestnikh rabot s amerikanskimi spetsialistami [Soyuz and Apollo, related by Soviet scientists, engineers, and cosmonauts - participants of the joint work with American specialists] (Moscow, 1976), p. 28.