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45 Years Ago: U.S.-Soviet Docking Two Months Away

John Uri |
May 17, 2020

Excitement continued to mount as only two months remained until the historic July 1975 handshake in space. The three American astronauts, Commander Thomas P. Stafford, Command Module Pilot Vance D. Brand and Docking Module Pilot Donald K. “Deke” Slayton, and the two Soviet cosmonauts , Aleksei A. Leonov and Valeri N. Kubasov, for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP), held their final joint training session in the Soviet Union in April 1975. The next time they met, they were in orbit around Earth.

They continued their separate training on spacecraft systems as well as language skills, since the agreement called for all crew members to speak the others’ language during joint operations. The crews participated in joint simulations carried out between their two control centers. Managers from both sides met in Moscow to sign a joint flight readiness assessment. The Soviets added a bit of excitement when they launched a new crew to the Salyut-4 space station for a planned two-month mission.

Two views of ASTP crewmembers (left to right) Deke Slayton, Vance Brand and Thomas Stafford during a Johnson Space Center press conference. Image Credits: NASA 

To prepare for the upcoming spaceflight operations, teams in the mission control centers in Kaliningrad, outside Moscow, and in Houston held a series of simulations of various phases of the joint mission with the participation of the astronauts and cosmonauts. A 25-hour simulation on May 13 began one hour before the projected Soyuz launch; a 56-hour exercise beginning May 15 that included rendezvous, docking, joint activities, undocking and separation; and an eight-hour simulation on May 19 rehearsed the rendezvous phase of the mission. Additional joint simulations took place in June. 

The ASTP Apollo astronauts took a break from the simulation activities on May 14 to hold a press conference at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, discussing with reporters their recent joint training session at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, outside Moscow, and their tour of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Soviet Kazakhstan, during which they inspected the Soyuz spacecraft for the mission. Astronauts continued their Russian language training as their Soviet counterparts continued English language lessons. 

Workers at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center continued checkout operations with the Saturn IB rocket and the Apollo Command and Service Modules at Launch Pad 39B. They completed the Flight Readiness Test, a verification of all launch vehicle and spacecraft preflight and in-flight systems, from May 27-28.

Left: George Low (middle) and Konstantin Bushuyev inspect the ASTP Soyuz rocket at Baikonur. Right: American and Soviet members of the joint working group for communications and tracking pose in front of the booster for the Soyuz spacecraft at Baikonur. 

Left: The prime (left) and backup Soyuz spacecraft during preparations at Baikonur. Right: Signing at the Flight Readiness Review in Moscow (seated, left to right) Bushuyev, Vladimir Kotelnikov, Low and Glynn Lunney.

Top NASA managers and representatives of the five joint ASTP working groups traveled to the Soviet Union for meetings with their counterparts. NASA Deputy Administrator George M. Low and Glynn S. Lunney, U.S. technical director of ASTP, conferred with counterparts Vladimir A. Kotelnikov, acting president of the USSR Academy of Sciences, and academician Konstantin D. Bushuyev, Soviet technical ASTP director. Following visits to Baikonur to inspect the booster and the spacecraft for the joint mission, Low and Kotelnikov chaired the joint Flight Readiness Review at the Presidium of Academy. After agreement from all the working group chairmen, they signed the joint flight readiness agreement in a ceremony on May 22, indicating that other than planned work until the launch, both sides were prepared for the historic joint mission. Lunney summarized the events at a press conference at Johnson on May 29, remarking that “all preparation for the flight were in order,” and that all activities were “on target for the July 15 launch.”

Left: Salyut-4 space station undergoing final checkout at Baikonur in 1974. Middle: Soyuz-18 crew of Vitali Sevastyanov (left) and Pyotr Klimuk during training. Right: Launch of Soyuz-18.

The Soviets had a surprise in store when they launched Soyuz-18 on May 24 with space veterans Pyotr I. Klimuk and Vitali I. Sevastyanov aboard. The two cosmonauts docked with the orbiting space station Salyut-4 the next day — the second crew to occupy the station for an expected two-month mission. On the one hand, U.S. officials were pleased that the Soviets had recovered from the April 5 launch abort that sent two cosmonauts destined for Salyut-4 on a stressful suborbital ride instead. On the other hand, they expressed concerns that with a two-month mission overlapping with ASTP, could the Soviets control two crewed missions at the same time? The Soviets had inaugurated a new control center in Kaliningrad in 1973, but still maintained the one in Yevpatoriya, in the Crimea, which had been used for earlier crewed and other space missions. To solve this problem, they planned to use the older facility for the Soyuz-18/Salyut-4 mission and the newer center for ASTP.

To be continued …

News events from around the world in May 1975:

  • May 4 – Houston Astros’ Bob Watson scores baseball’s one-millionth run of all time.
  • May 7 – U.S. President Gerald R. Ford declares an end to the “Vietnam era.”
  • May 12 – U.S. merchant ship Mayaguez is seized by Cambodian forces.
  • May 16 – Junko Tabei from Japan becomes the first woman to reach the summit of Mt. Everest.
  • May 26 – “Rhinestone Cowboy” single released by Glen Campbell.
  • May 27 – In the Stanley Cup Final, the Philadelphia Flyers take back-to-back titles, beating the Buffalo Sabres four games to two.
  • May 30 – ESA (European Space Agency) forms.
  • May 30 – Wings release "Venus & Mars" album.
  • May 31 "Fight the Power" single released by The Isley Brothers.